After the defeat of the Manchin-Toomey gun registration bill in the Senate, reactions from both sides were very high decibel, with both claiming majority public support.
The bill’s backers, referencing the National Rifle Association (NRA), said, “This is an outrageous example of a special interest group thwarting the public will through campaign contributions and intimidation tactics. The killings will go on even though 90 percent of Americans support stronger gun controls.”
Its opponents, claiming constitutional high ground, said, “Second Amendment rights have been preserved as, once again, Congress has sided with the vast majority of law-abiding citizens who wish to defend themselves.”
Very strong rhetoric over what was, in fact, a very modest proposal. It would not have broken significant new ground but simply expanded an already existing practice, background checks on gun purchasers. Its passage would not have deterred a crazed killer determined to shoot up a classroom or affected a citizen’s right to own a gun.
Immediate public reaction to the horror of the Newtown slaughter suggested that a much stronger measure would be drafted and very likely pass. At the time, Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said the desire to do something to show support for the victims and their families represented a ”sea change” on the issue; polls recorded a significant majority of Americans in favor of stronger gun controls. What happened?
As is always the case in questions of this sort, there are many answers. However, it is clear that supporters of gun control overestimated the staying power of their position. Attitudes on the issue changed, and the reason was less the NRA than Christmas. Americans simply turned their attention elsewhere. By the time Congress convened in January, support for stronger gun laws was back down to 38 percent, about where it had been before Newton happened.
Kevin Drum, of the left-leaning publication Mother Jones, puts it this way:
“How did this happen even though, as liberals remind us endlessly, 90 percent of the American public supports background checks? Because about 80 percent of those Americans think it sounds like a reasonable idea but don’t really care much. I doubt that one single senator will suffer at the polls in 2014 for voting against Manchin-Toomey.”
Pauline Kael was a writer for The New Yorker who exclaimed, after Richard Nixon won every state except Massachusetts in 1972, “It’s not possible! I don’t know a single person who voted for him!” Gun control supporters suffer from the Pauline Kael syndrome. They are unable to acknowledge the possibility that their reading of political trends might be myopic. Starting with President Obama, who led the charge with very strong rhetoric, they overreached and caused many people to tune them out.
To have 90 percent of Americans on your side is good, but to have only 20 percent of them care about your issue is bad, particularly at a time when there other things to think about — the economy, immigration reform, Obamacare and North Korea. Gallup now reports that only 4 percent of Americans think gun control is our most important issue, which plays perfectly into the hands of the NRA.
Politics has been called “The art of the possible.” If supporters of Manchin-Toomey had understood what had happened to public attitudes between Newtown and January, and started with a call for a bill on background checks instead of being forced to retreat to one as a last resort, the outcome could well have been different. The best proof of the fact that the “sea change” on guns was really only a single wave is Sen. Begich himself, who last week voted “No.”
Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.