Sen. Joe Manchin’s misreading of gun control politics

Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) speaks to the media after a vote on Capitol Hill in Washington December 17, 2012. Manchin, a conservative West Virginia Democrat who has earned top marks from the gun industry, said Congress and weapons makers should come together on a

Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV.) (Reuters/Joshua Roberts)

Senator Joe Manchin did an laudable job this year of trying to steer a bipartisan gun-control package through the Senate, despite being a Democrat representing a red state where hunting is very popular. And he may be called upon to do so again next year. But his comments about the politics of gun control yesterday on CNN’s “State of the Union” seem very wrong, and might bode poorly for the fate of gun control legislation next year:

 What we found out is that people just didn’t trust government, that they were going to stop there. So they said hey Joe, we’re OK with the bill. We like the bill. The bill is not bad at all. We can live with that. But we just don’t trust government stopping and doing what we say we’re going to do.

That’s not quite what happened. Indeed, people liked the bill — very much. As proponents of the legislation often pointed out, support for universal background checks is around 90 percent and remained that high through the entire gun control debate.

It’s hard to find evidence for Manchin’s claim that the legislation failed because people didn’t “trust the government…to stop there.” An April 2013 Washington Post poll – at the height of the gun control debate — found that 55 percent of Americans thought it was possible to make new gun control laws without interfering with the rights of gun owners, with 38 percent thinking otherwise. Americans also said enacting new laws to reduce gun violence were more important than protecting the rights of gun owners, by a 52-40 margin, according to the polls.

And others, including a HuffPost/YouGov poll in September, found that 48 percent of Americans wanted gun laws that were more strict, compared with 16 percent who said less strict and 29 percent who wanted no change.

Now it’s certainly true that pro-gun groups liked to scaremonger about a “national gun registry” that would be used to take away the rights of gun-owners—but despite their best efforts, we still saw polls with broad, bipartisan support for the Manchin-Toomey legislation.

Manchin surely knows such claims are unfounded, since his own bill explicitly makes such a registry illegal, and since he regularly dismissed such concerns back in the spring. So it’s quite odd to see him retroactively validating those unfounded concerns now, and ascribing them to “most people” instead of misinformation by the gun industry and its political allies.

That’s troubling for the immediate future of gun control, because if Manchin really believes the public has spoken, that would be a much more intractable problem then simply fighting some industry misinformation and winning a couple more votes.

But this little episode also underscores a personal pet peeve: the tendency by many people, including those who work within the system and know better, to broadly and belatedly ascribe legislative outcomes as the obvious will of the voters. Gun control failed despite public support, because pro-gun groups are quite adept at lobbying (and spending money), and because many legislators feared primary challenges from pro-gun opponents. Even though it failed in Congress, it didn’t fail with the people.

Similarly, you might hear folks pontificating that the death of the public option during the debate over the Affordable Care Act shows that Americans aren’t ready for socialized health insurance—but the public option was extraordinarily popular with both conservatives and liberals, and was in fact one of the more popular parts of the bill. Our democracy doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to, and people who work in politics would be wise to remember that when assessing what went wrong and how to move forward.


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