A Look Back at Background Checks

Unfortunately, the recent legislative battle for greater gun control has been lost.  President Obama assures us that the fight is neither lost nor over, but Newtown wanted their vote and they got it.

The background check bill, modest as it was, failed to pass the Senate with a 54-46 vote.  Five Democrats voted against the bill, and only four Republicans voted for it–a far cry from the as-near-total-as-you’re-going-to-get bipartisan support for anything.  Even if one is wary of the prickly nature of polls and doesn’t want to draft policy based on a handful of recent polls, support this overwhelming can withstand a conservative accounting of the figures.  Some polls showed support in the high 70s to the low 90s, including one which showed 91% of support among veterans.  The discrepancy between the makeup of opinion of the U.S. and our legislative bodies is glaring and can be explained, for the most part, by two democratic pitfalls.

The first, and far less tractable problem is that two senators a state is making less and less sense as populations near cities continue to grow.  The wisdom of the electoral college and geography rather than population as a basis of representation is waning–and while it is true that you can use its effect of mutual dissatisfaction to give the Union a semblance of cultural cohesion–we cannot reasonably want to skew very much, the degree with which we’re being represented by our lawmakers.  Wyoming, Alaska, and Montana have six senators, yet they represent states which  are collectively a million and a half people shy of the population of Los Angeles.  It is vital that values among states do not become too disparate, and mitigating the power of populous states helps to curb that danger, but we have already gone too far in the wrong direction by not adjusting to the growing difference between state populations.
The other is that it is hard to punish already unpopular representatives.  Now it is traditionally Congress not the Senate that garners dismal approval numbers (although their approval ratings are nothing to scream about), and part of the legislative dysfunction is that many senators and congressmen are popular in their states  but unpopular as a part of Congress/Senate.  This, of course is the result of people liking unconciliatory politicians and bemoaning a legislative lockdown, stalemate or whatever word best describes the seemingly motionless cog that represents change in America, but I digress.
What we can glean from the loss is that fervor matters, and that lobbies have better memories than voters.   Tepid support, even from ninety percent of its voters does not guarantee passage of a bill, especially when support is so low among the House and Senate.  The threat of being unseated by a highly motivated, politically involved ten percent is no idle one.  They will spend money, time and energy not only reminding their ten percent of how that congressman/senator voted through NRA grades, mailers, and TV ads, but will make sure that all future campaign contributions from groups like the NRA go to the representative that swears to strip, not add gun control measures.
The rest of us are just given another reason to shake our heads at the dysfunction on the Hill and unconsciously add to the ball of antipathy devoted to them in our minds, but representatives count on a poor attention paid to their voting record.  Approval ratings are relative, and they can hide behind 10% as well as they can 60% as long as people vote party-ticket and assume their representative didn’t vote out of step with the ninety percent.   All hope is not lost, however.  Approval ratings for those who voted against the bill have dipped, and if we care to remember their names in 2014, we may yet see movement on effective gun control.
It is well worth pointing out that Democrats in the Senate are almost exactly in alignment with the national polls on background checks.  The dissent of five senators out of fifty-three is 8.5%, representing 91.5% support for the bill.  Republicans on the other hand are the inverse of that, and therefore almost all of them were looking out for that ten percent, and for a group that is always grumbling about the influence of minority interests, they sure didn’t mind making an exception in their own case.
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Author: The Blue Route

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