Disconnect over expanded checks doomed gun bill; poll shows public deeply divided

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Polling suggests many voters viewed last week’s Senate gun votes through the lens of Second Amendment rights — findings that show why gun control advocates fell short in their bid to expand background checks on firearms sales despite overwhelming public support.

A Pew Research Center-Washington Post poll found that 39 percent were “happy” or “relieved” that the gun bill failed, while 47 percent were “disappointed” or “angry.” Of those who followed the debate closely, the reaction essentially was split, with 47 percent reacting positively and 48 percent negatively.


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When asked just about expanding background checks — the issue at stake in last week’s key gun decision — voters’ support was overwhelming. The disconnect between the specific issue and broader views on Second Amendment rights helps explain how gun control proponents fell short.

Advocates were left shaking their heads, and President Obama vowed electoral consequences for those who voted against expanded background checks.

But David Chipman, a former agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said opponents turned the fight into a question of gun registration and broader Second Amendment issues.

“I think a lot of hay was made at the end about the record-keeping component of that, and what it means and doesn’t mean,” said Mr. Chipman, now an adviser to the gun control advocacy group Mayors Against Illegal Guns. The other side saw it as “record-keeping means registration, and registration means confiscation.”

Senators defeated a series of gun control proposals last week, including a ban on many semi-automatic rifles and on large-capacity ammunition magazines. But the key showdown was over a proposal to expand background checks to include private sales at gun shows and over the Internet.

Advocates fell five votes shy of the 60 they would have needed, and they accused gun rights supporters of ignoring the will of the public.

“The gun lobby and its allies willfully lied about the bill,” Mr. Obama said in the White House Rose Garden about 90 minutes after the vote. “I see this as just Round 1. Sooner or later, we are going to get this right.”

But gun rights advocates said that expanding background checks would be a step toward a gun registry, which they feared eventually could give the government the ability to confiscate firearms.

Such rhetoric, both in polling and throughout the larger debate since December’s shooting rampage at a school in Newtown, Conn., made a difference for the public, Mr. Chipman said.

For example, he said, the mere mention of the subject reinforces the belief for the most ardent of gun rights advocates that the Second Amendment is in place to defend oneself, with force, against an overweening government.

He cited homegrown terrorist Timothy McVeigh, who said his 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was a response to what he saw as the federal government’s overreach in the 1993 standoff with the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas.

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican who helped write the background check plan, said Wednesday that one reason why it failed was because he and co-sponsor Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, devoted too much time to debunking falsehoods and not enough time to making their own pitches.

Mr. Toomey said on MSNBC that his office heard from opponents much more than supporters — “several times from each one of them” — and that the vote was partly a product of the increased polarization of politics in general.

“It was a much more vocal and much more passionate expression from that camp,” he said. “In 1999, the NRA endorsed expanding background checks, and Republicans overwhelmingly voted for it, including myself, on the House floor. And now everybody’s hair is on fire about it. And I think it’s just the polarization that explains it.”

Another problem for gun control advocates is that despite renewed interest after the school shooting rampage that left 20 children and six faculty members dead, the public still doesn’t consider gun control a top issue.

In a recent Fox News poll, it was fifth, below the economy and jobs, the federal deficit, terrorism and health care, when voters were asked what issue Congress and the president should be addressing.

“When you’re dealing with policy that’s emotional, the time to act is always shorter than policymakers think it is,” said John Hudak, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies gun policy and presidential power.

Support for any new gun control law dipped to 49 percent in a USA Today poll this week — down from 58 percent in December, just after the shootings.

“People adjust to certain policies in certain ways,” Mr. Hudak said. “They also adjust to the status quo.”

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