Why background checks failed

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Today, the obvious question is why the Manchin-Toomey amendment failed, despite expanded background checks enjoying the support of 90 percent of Americans.

My guess is these are the primary reasons:

1. 60 votes required. Despite garnering 54 votes in the senate, the amendment failed because it needed 60 votes to pass. While some will call this undemocratic, it’s important to note that Harry Reid chose to follow this procedure in order to block pro-gun rights amendments (such as concealed carry) from being added.

2. Polls are misleading. I’m not saying that the polls were skewed, but rather, that they are easily misinterpreted. The fact that 90 percent of Americans favor something is largely irrelevant. Most Americans probably favor chocolate over vanilla, but that doesn’t mean they are intent on doing anything about it.

When measuring polls, it’s important to weigh intensity versus preference. According to Gallup, just 4 percent of Americans see guns as the most pressing problem to be addressed. So the support for gun control is an inch deep and a mile wide.

Why does this matter? It tells us that while Americans might prefer background checks, it’s not an issue that will drive them to the polls. Meanwhile, the minority of Americans who want to defend the 2nd Amendment are likely much more passionate.

The experts agree. Consider this quote from Dan Balz’s column: “If you ever wanted a textbook example of intensity trumping preference, this is it,” said Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University.”

3. Red State Democrats. Some years are tougher than others, and Democrats just happen to find themselves defending several vulnerable incumbents who happen to reside in rural states in 2014. This, alone, might have doomed the chances of passing any gun control.

4. The slippery slope. From time to time, I find myself tasked with explaining (interpreting, really) conservatism to the outside world (see my December, 2011 post explaining Newt Gingrich’s appeal.)

I don’t want to give the impression that opposition to background checks is based solely on strategic considerations. While some may view opposition to such a modest proposal as an example of defending the indefensible, there is an explanation as to why anyone who cares about defending the second amendment might oppose even the most modest infringement.

Simply put, many conservatives fear that freedoms will be eroded incrementally — that giving the agitators background checks today will inexorably lead to gun registration tomorrow (and to confiscation the next day.) Some may see this as paranoid, but one man’s paranoia is another man’s vigilance.


There are other reasons, of course. Sen. Pat Toomey’s outreach to conservatives, for example, can’t compare to Sen. Marco Rubio’s efforts on immigration reform. But I suspect the aforementioned are the primary reasons the amendment failed.


UPDATE: A couple people have weighed in on Twitter, and I wanted to address their points.

– I didn’t mention the NRA because, a). Though important, I think their importance (they have been cast as a bogeyman) is overestimated, and b). their potential electoral impact is implicit in #3.

– Someone pointed out that the survey showing more than 90 percent of Americans support expanded background checks isn’t exactly the same as Manchin-Toomey. This is technically true, but as far as I’m concerned, a distinction without a difference. Still, I have updated the language in the first sentence to be more precise.

Matt K. Lewis