Post-mortem on gun control: Supporters less threatening at polls than opponents

Supporters of tougher gun laws did not hound Congress enough to get even widely popular reforms passed through the Senate this week, according to a number of observers on and off Capitol Hill.

Although polls show that an overwhelming majority of voters back tougher gun laws — in the case of universal background checks, the figure tops 90 percent — that support did not translate into a legislative victory this week in the Senate, where lawmakers blocked the central elements of President Obama's strategy for fighting gun violence.

Some advocates for those reforms say the discrepancy between the polls and congressional action can be largely attributed to a simple lack of pressure from voters on their representatives. They're warning that no changes will pass until gun control supporters become as vehement, as united — and as threatening at the polls — as the gun rights activists who oppose tougher laws.

"I'm not sure that folks who had a vote on this understood that there's a passionate majority in their state that's for this," Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) said Thursday, referring to a background-check bill blocked by the Senate on Wednesday.

Thompson, sponsor of his own background-check expansion, said he recently asked a GOP colleague from California to endorse his bill as an original co-sponsor. Despite popular support for the idea in his district, the Republican declined, Thompson said, citing a lack of direct pressure on his office.

"He said, 'I'll vote for it, but I don't want to co-author it,' " Thompson said at a press briefing in the Capitol. "And I said, 'Do you know how many people in your district support this?' He said, 'Yeah, I saw the poll that said 93 percent of my district supports this.' And I said, 'And you don't want to co-author it?' He said, 'Not one of them has called me.' "
 
While the political perils of bucking the powerful gun lobby to support tougher gun laws has long been recognized on Capitol Hill, the Senate vote to block expanded background checks, Thompson said, is indication that many lawmakers see no similar danger in opposing new gun controls, even those with wide popular support.

With that in mind, gun control advocates are beginning to notice that, to be successful, they'll have to prove there are political ramifications for lawmakers who reject their agenda.

"What happened last night in the Senate is going to be a strong message to the voters across this country that it's time to get involved, that it's time to pick up the phone and call their members," Thompson said.

Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), a victim of gun violence who now advocates for tougher restrictions, penned a damning op-ed in The New York Times Thursday, hammering the opponents of the Senate background-check bill and calling on supporters to get off the sidelines and warn lawmakers of "consequences" on gun votes.

"I am asking for mothers to stop these lawmakers at the grocery store and tell them: You've lost my vote," Giffords wrote. "I'm asking citizens to go to their [lawmakers'] offices and say: You've disappointed me, and there will be consequences."

A senior White House official delivered a similar message Thursday, saying any revival of Obama's gun control push now hinges on voters pressuring Congress directly.

"It'll sort of depend on how this plays in the public,” the official said. “If there's genuine outrage that the Senate did this, it's very possible that this comes back again.”

Sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), the Senate's background-check bill would have expanded mandatory screenings to cover all firearm sales at gun shows and on the Internet, an extension of current law, which requires such screenings only for sales conducted by federally licensed gun dealers.

Although the National Rifle Association (NRA) had once championed universal background checks at gun shows, the powerful lobbying group joined other conservative organizations in warning that the Manchin-Toomey proposal would roll back the Second Amendment rights of gun owners. Despite the overwhelming public support for the measure, just 55 senators supported it — five shy of those needed to defeat a Republican filibuster.

"As we have noted previously, expanding background checks, at gun shows or elsewhere, will not reduce violent crime or keep our kids safe in their schools," Chris Cox, head of the NRA's lobbying arm, said in a statement after the vote.

In a phone interview with The Hill last month, Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University, predicted the background-check bill would fail. The reason, Baker said, was that while gun owners represent a vast minority of Americans, they tend to turn out in large numbers at the polls to vote as a bloc and hinge their support largely on Second Amendment issues. Many gun control supporters, on the other hand, don't treat those issues as their primary impetus in choosing a candidate, which erodes their power despite their much larger numbers.

"The passionate minority wins every time," Baker said. "Lawmakers know who will vote on this issue, and come 2014, the NRA members will remember this vote. The others won't."

Gun control advocates are hoping Baker is wrong. Indeed, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who heads Mayors Against Illegal Guns, an advocacy group, has vowed to run attack ads against lawmakers who oppose tougher gun laws in the name of public safety. After the Manchin-Toomey bill fell Wednesday, he doubled down on that threat.

"The only silver lining is that we now know who refuses to stand with the 90 percent of Americans," Bloomberg said in a statement, "and in 2014, our ever-expanding coalition of supporters will work to make sure that voters don’t forget.”