The Senate Voted Down Universal Background Checks. But Why?

800px-Columbus_Gun_Show_billboardEarlier this week, gun control advocates were stricken when the Senate failed to pass the Manchin-Toomey amendment to the Safe Communities and Schools Act of 2013. This amendment to the base gun control bill would have required universal background checks for anyone purchasing a firearm. The change would primarily affect private sales and sales at gun shows, both situations where background checks are not always required now. The measure has overwhelming popular support – close to 90% of people polled were in favor. And yet, the Senate voted it down.

The question hanging over the Capitol now is, “Why?” Why would 47 Senators vote against a measure with such high approval from the population?

In a word, politics.

Elected officials have, in theory, two roles. On the one hand, they are public servants, executing the will of the people, promoting the common good. On the other hand they are candidates. Perpetually. They keep one eye on the next election cycle. The generous explanation for this is that they can’t continue public service if they lose the next election. The more cynical take is that they like the perks of their jobs and care more about keeping them than doing them well.

No legislator goes to the floor to take a vote without thinking of how it will play back home. That’s particularly the case with a high-profile, very controversial issue like gun control. Every Senator voting on the background check amendment was looking at polling at home, looking at donor lists, looking at sentiment coming in from constituents in the form of email and phone calls. Their focus was only on their home state and what those people – those voters – think. Maybe serving that public mattered to them. Or maybe it was only about the next election.

If you parse out the vote lists and compare them to who’s up for election in 2014, you’ll see that of the four Democrats who voted against Manchin-Toomey, three of them are up for re-election (the fourth is Senator Reid who voted no to create a procedural bookmark on the amendment in order to allow the Senate to reconsider it later, as I understand it). They live in Alaska, Montana, and North Dakota, all conservative leaving states with strong NRA ties. A ‘yes’ vote would have been like handing an opponent a loaded weapon with which to shoot them during campaign season, if you’ll forgive the analogy.

It’s also worth noting that every Republican with an election in 2014 was a ‘no’ vote, even more traditionally moderate Republicans like Senator Susan Collins of Maine and Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas. They likely don’t fear what a Democratic opponent in the general election would say. No, they’re vulnerable to primary challenges from the far-right wing of the Republican party. That threat is more and more often a motivator for Republican lawmakers. They fear losing their seats to someone in their own party because of the well-organized Tea Party contingent that is willing to challenge a sitting legislator in a primary.

The end result is that votes are heavily influenced by the far right of the country even when the middle and left are in the majority in public opinion. It’s troubling on a lot of levels, not the least of which is that as a Maryland resident, I’m not super thrilled about living according to the will of Montana residents. The concerns of gun ownership and acquisition among people in rural states are significantly different from for those of us in urban areas. But more troubling is the willingness of legislators to sell out the country in order to win an election. That’s not what public service should be about.

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