The Senate on Wednesday defeated a bipartisan compromise to expand background checks for gun purchases, marking an ignominious end of a four-month national debate over how to curb the gun violence epidemic in the United States.
The failure of the background check bill is baffling. The bill, authored by two Senators with ‘A’ ratings from the NRA, would have extended background checks to sales at gun shows and all Internet sales, while exempting most private transactions between families and friends. (Under the existing system, more than 40 per cent of guns are purchased without a background check.)
An overwhelming majority of Americans — 86 per cent — support the measure, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week. That number includes 90 per cent of Democrats and 84 per cent of Republicans, with majorities in each group saying that they strongly support the measure.
Even among members of the National Rifle Association, 74 per cent support criminal background checks for all gun sales, according to another survey.
Despite this overwhelming support for background checks, however, the measure failed to earn the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate, with 54 in favour to 46 opposed.
And it wasn’t just Republicans who opposed the bill. Four Democrats also voted against the measure, virtually ensuring that it would fail. (If those Senators had voted for the measure, Democrats would have needed just one more Republican vote to pass the bill.)
So how is it possible that something supported by almost 90 per cent of Americans could fail to get even 60 votes in the U.S. Senate?
There are several reasons for the bill’s defeat, most of which come down to political calculation.
Here are three key factors that played a role:
1. The 2014 midterms. At the end of the day, the upcoming midterm elections weighed more heavily on the minds of some Red State Democrats than the national polling.
Three of the four Democrats who voted against the background check measure — Sens. Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Mark Begich of Alaska — are up for re-election next year in gun-loving states that voted overwhelmingly against President Barack Obama in 2012.
Alaska, Montana, and Arkansas boast some of the highest gun ownership rates in country, with more than 55 per cent of the adult population owning at least one gun.
All three states have also recently passed laws to loosen restrictions on gun owners. In Alaska and Montana, state lawmakers introduced legislation this year that would nullify federal gun laws in the state. Arkansas became the first state to exempt the names of gun owners from public disclosure earlier this year.
Baucus, for one, is keenly aware of the political cost of voting for gun control. He nearly lost his seat voting voting for the assault weapons ban in 1994, eking out the tightest victory of his 35-year Senate career. He is now the only Senate Democrat with an ‘A+’ rating from the NRA.
2. The NRA. While the NRA’s reputation took a hit in the wake of its botched response to the Newtown massacre, Wednesday’s vote proves that the powerful gun lobbying group still holds considerable sway over lawmakers.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, the NRA launched a full-court press to pressure lawmakers, mobilizing its 4 million members and army of lobbyists to defeat the bill. Fairly or unfairly, the organisation convinced many gun owners that voting for background checks would increase costs for gun owners and ultimately lead to a national gun registry — and succeeded in turning four Democrats and all but four Republicans against the bill.
The organisation made it so impossible for red-state lawmakers to support gun control legislation, that Begich and Pryor eventually signed on to cosponsor alternative background check legislation drafted with help from the NRA.
3. Passion. Part of the reason why the NRA is so influential is that its members are extremely enthusiastic about protecting gun rights.
To illustrate this, the Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza highlights these poll numbers from last week’s WaPo-ABC News survey:
- 18 per cent of gun owners have contacted a representative to express their views on gun control, compared to just 10 per cent of non-gun owners.
- 17 per cent of gun owners have given money to an organisation involved in the gun control issue, compared to just 4 per cent of non-gun owners.
- 40 per cent of gun activists — those who have either contacted a politician or donated money on the gun control issue — would not vote for a candidate with whom they disagree on gun policy. Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of non-gun activists — more than 75 per cent — have no problem voting for a politician with whom they disagree on gun control.
These numbers get to the heart of the reason why even a moderate gun control steps, like requiring background checks for gun sales, have failed to pass Congress, despite national polling: There is little political risk in voting against gun control. The consequences of going up against the pro-gun lobby, on the other hand, could be enough to end a Senate career.
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