Why Did Gun Control Fail?

Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.

With near-unanimous support from the public, how did President Obama’s plan for expanded background checks fail? The easy answer is it ran into the same barriers that have kept Democrats from passing any legislation over the last two years: Hyper-partisanship, joined with malapportionment in the Senate, routine filibusters, and a 60-vote threshold for cloture.

Writing at Buzzfeed, Ruby Cramer and Evan McMorris-Santoro offer a more granular take, critiquing the particular political strategy pursued by the White House:

But others said the White House’s campaign was encumbered by allowing urgency to fade; pursuing too many issues at once; overreaching in the early stages of the gun debate; and fundamentally failing to mobilize Obama’s legendary grassroots to pressure lawmakers.

Each is a fair point, though it’s hard to see how they were avoidable. Everything is followed by a return to normalcy, and—like clockwork—shock over the Newtown shootings gave way to our familiar political rhythms. And in the landscape of American politics, the National Rifle Association is a powerful force, with deep pockets, millions of dedicated supporters, and a broadly favorable political climate. It’s no surprise that gun control advocates failed to pass the first piece of regulation in nearly twenty years—the NRA has spent decades shaping the consensus on gun rights, and Sandy Hook wasn’t enough to overturn the whole thing.

Could Obama have placed grassroots pressure on lawmakers? For Democrats, possibly. Though the Democratic defectors on Manchin-Toomey were red state Democrats who may not be responsive to appeals from liberals and other activists. As for Republicans, there’s no way Obama could have pressured them into support, and this quote from Lindsay Graham explains why:

Asked about the White House strategy on the gun push, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told BuzzFeed it “couldn’t have been any worse.”

“It’s tone deaf,” Graham said. “He’s been a political cheerleader on this, and he’s poisoned the well. There’s some solutions out there, but he picked three things that really wouldn’t fix the system.” […]

“He’s played politics with this and quite frankly he lost because there’s more political rhetoric than substantive solutions,” Graham said. “The debate on the senate floor wasn’t about anybody being afraid [to vote for something] — it was about people looking at proposals that don’t address the problem.”

“Poisoned the well?” Obama supports new gun regulations, so he took his case to the public. By this standard, any presidential advocacy counts as poisoning the well.

And of course, that’s exactly what Graham means. By simply supporting a new gun law, Obama forfeited support from Senate Republicans, who had—and have—no plans to vote for something the president wants.

You can see Obama’s bind here. If he doesn’t speak out in support of legislation, Republicans will work to kill the bill citing low public support, and if he does, they’ll work to kill the bill citing procedural concerns. It’s the been the pattern for more than four years, and barring rules reform in the Senate, it will continue.

This, relatedly, is why Obama has been quiet on immigration reform. As soon as he takes his case to the public, the game is over, and even more Republicans will move to reject a compromise. It sounds absurd—and it is—but that’s the reality.