The Gun Control Debate Has Nothing to Do With Public Opinion

If public opinion mattered, the gun debate would already be over.

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Pia Carusone and Mark Kelly speak at a press breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.

A new poll from the Washington Post and ABC News shows that most Americans – 55 percent – think new gun laws could be passed without impinging on Second Amendment rights. This prompted a couple of Post politics bloggers to suggest that “there may be a new middle ground emerging” on gun rights and gun control. But I think this misses a key point about the debate over greater gun control: Polls and public opinion are, in large part, irrelevant.

To put it another way, if this was a poll driven issue, it wouldn’t be an issue. The Post/ABC poll was the latest to produce a now familiar data point: Today’s survey found that 86 percent of Americans support “a law requiring background checks on people buying guns at gun shows or online.”

This is down slightly from last month, but it still enjoys a kind of broad agreement almost never seen in politics. For example, a recent Public Policy Polling survey found that smaller numbers of Americans believe the moon landing was genuine (84 percent), that federal fluoridation of water is not a sinister conspiracy (74 percent), that President Obama is not the anti-Christ (73 percent), and that the federal government does not add “secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals” (70 percent).

Part of the problem is admittedly that a nontrivial number of people think universal background checks are already federal law. And yet not only is a fairly watered down iteration of this overwhelmingly popular background check proposal in real trouble in the Senate, but it’s widely seen as doomed in the House.

This is mostly due to the power of a special interest, the gun lobby. As Mark Kelly, husband of former representative Gabby Giffords, put it a press breakfast this morning, the problem is that “you have 350 members of Congress who are very afraid of the gun lobby.”

[See editorial cartoons about gun control and gun rights.]

What that means as a practical matter, Kelly told reporters at an event organized by the Christian Science Monitor, is that “there are a lot of U.S. senators that are just looking for a way to get to ‘no’” on the gun bill that the chamber is currently considering. Kelly and Pia Carusone, the executive director of Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group he and Gabby founded a few months ago to push responsible gun control measures, recounted that in all the one-on-one meetings the three of them have had with lawmakers recently, no one has ever said that expanding the background checks on gun purchases is not a good idea.

“It’s concerning because I’ve sat in members’ offices who have said to me, ‘Hey I agree that there should be a universal background check, I agree that we need to address high capacity magazines and assault weapons; and I can’t vote for any of that,’” Kelly recounted. “That’s a problem.”

He said that he’s “not completely pessimistic” about a bill getting through the Senate. He and Gabby are spending the day on the Hill going member by member trying to get them to “yes.” He said: “It’s an uphill climb to get there, but I am confident that over the coming days we have a chance to convince people to do the right thing and stand with their constituents and not stand with the gun lobby.”

Both Kelly and Carusone dodged questions about how they would expect to fare in the House. “There’s no one path to victory on this and gaming the strategy out is difficult,” she said. He added: “The first priority is getting it passed in the Senate and then we will be seeing what we have to do to get it passed in the House. It’ll take some time. We would not want the vote in the house to be in the next week or so if it passed the senate. It’s going to take a little bit of time with those members to make sure that they understand the legislation.”

[Check out editorial cartoons about the Newtown shooting.]

Time is the critical element. Kelly couldn’t explicitly acknowledge that the conventional wisdom is likely correct, that even if a bill comes out of the Senate it faces bleak prospects in the House. But he implicitly said as much: “The NRA, Gun Owners of America have done an outstanding job over the past 30 years … where they, in my opinion, seem to control the votes on gun legislation of a majority of members of congress,” he said. “And that needs to be fixed. And it might take some election cycles.”

Some election cycles. I actually take some comfort in that time frame. It means Kelly, Gabby and their new group have a sense of how long it’s going to take to get our politics back to a place where gun laws are not completely disconnected from public sentiment. Indeed, if there’s one political positive that has already come from aftermath of Newtown it’s the steps taken toward creating the infrastructure for a new political counterweight to the gun lobby. If groups like Americans for Responsible Solutions and Mayors Against Illegal Guns can provide a bulwark against the NRA and its allies, that will be an important first step in a long struggle.

Those groups “had a 100 year head start,” Kelly said. “So this is going to take a little bit of time.” Hopefully time is on his side.

  • Read: Hey Congress, Follow Colorado's Lead on Gun Control
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  • Read: The NRA Would Rather Stand By Their Guns Than Their Word