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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Senate Defeats Background Check Measure, Which 91% of Public Supports. Why?

Roughly nine in 10 Americans (91%) say they would vote for a law requiring criminal background checks for all U.S. gun purchasers. The U.S. Senate considered legislation last week that would have expanded background checks for gun purchases: 54 senators voted yes; 46 voted no. Because 60 votes were needed to advance the background check bill, the bill failed. Although the legislation the Senate considered last week was much more complicated (more on this below) than the concept embodied in a simple survey question, the fact remains that the Senate did not engage in voting behavior that seemingly would be in line with the views of 90% of the U.S. public.

As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd asked on Sunday, in reference to President Obama’s strong push to pass such legislation: “How is it that the president won the argument on gun safety with the public and lost the vote in the Senate?”

Dowd focuses in her column on how the president could have engaged in more efforts to cajole, push, pull, seduce, or threaten senators to vote for the bill (or, in her references, how Obama could have mimicked the behaviors of fictional president Andrew Shepherd in the Rob Reiner movie "The American President").

The situation raises other interesting questions, however. If the public is so overwhelmingly in favor, why did the Senate end up not passing it? And what does this tell us about the way in which representative democracy works in this country?

I am in favor of elected representatives listening to the voice of the people when they make policy; generally speaking, I think the collective views of the public are centered and wise, particularly on broad issues and directions in which the country can move. I think Americans believe they are smarter than the men and women they elect as well.

In fact, a recent review of research by Columbia University's Robert Shapiro shows that as a rule, policy decisions in fact do tend to follow the broad scope of public opinion. Shapiro concludes that there is, as he puts it, "a substantial connection, overall, between public opinion and policymaking in the United States." The connection is fairly stable and often substantial.

Which leads us to ask what happened in this situation in which this connection was not so substantial?

Commentators have brought up several points on this question -- in addition to Dowd’s column, which focuses on the inability of gun control proponents to twist arms in order to get legislation passed.

One issue, of course, is the fact that the Senate by design is not representative of the U.S. population. The juxtaposition of the 90% (national adult public opinion) figure with the 54% (Senate vote) figure assumes there should be a direct relationship between the two. That was not the Founding Fathers' intention. As part of the compromise that led to the development and passage of the Constitution, the upper legislative body gives each state equal representation.

In theory, if both senators from each of the smallest 23 states voted "no" on the background legislation, they would be representing about 13% of the nation’s population with those votes. If both senators from each of the largest 27 states voted "yes," they would be representing 87% of the nation’s population. In other words, in theory, 46% of the Senate vote could reflect the public opinion of only 13% of the population, and 54% of the Senate vote could reflect the public opinion of 87% of the nation’s population.

In fact, both senators from the nation’s smallest state, Wyoming (Barrasso and Enzi) did vote “nay.” The votes of these two senators represented a little more than half a million people. Both senators from the nation’s largest state, California (Boxer and Feinstein) did vote “yea.” Their votes represented more than 38 million people. In a national public opinion poll, the residents of Wyoming are about 1.5% of the representation of the residents of California. Phrased differently, California residents represent about 12% of the nation’s population, while Wyoming residents represent about 0.2% of the nation’s population.Yet both states’ senators get the same representation as far as votes are concerned. California’s residents’ views on policy legislation are much, much more important statistically in a national survey than are Wyoming residents’ opinions. But the opinions of the states’ residents are equalized in terms of the Senate vote.

These calculations are all hypothetical, of course. In fact, the vote on the background check law was not directly related to state population size. Nor, of course, is public opinion in each state monolithic, such that residents in small states are all opposed to background checks and large states all in favor.

In fact, the very high level of national support for background checks statistically means that it is likely that majorities of residents in every state support background checks, just at different levels.

Political scientist Brian Schaffner did an analysis (posted on of support in each state for stricter gun control laws and the votes of the two senators from each state on the assault weapons ban bill that was also voted on Wednesday. The results show a very high relationship in general between the two variables. In other words, using a measure of public opinion on gun control at the state level and a vote by the state’s senators on a gun control bill, Schaffner shows that there is a strong correlation. The senators in this instance were in fact generally representing their constituencies.

Now, as noted, the 90% overall public support for background checks makes this a little different situation that support for stricter gun laws. But the concept is important. It’s certainly possible for there to be a situation in which each state’s senators faithfully do follow public opinion of their state's residents, but with a result in which the percentages of the final Senate vote end up being out of whack with the overall percentages of the U.S. population.

Secondly, there is the question of the link between senators and those they represent. The focus has been on the disjuncture with public opinion and the Senate. But senators are not elected by the total population in their state. Senators are elected first by going through a nomination process involving a small percentage of voters in one party, and then by a statewide election involving a larger, but still fractional, percent of the adult population. So it is possible to have a state in which the majority of residents favor a policy such as background checks, but in which the smaller group of voters in a state’s primary oppose the policy. For a senator facing re-election at some point, it is this group of residents in the primary and then in the general election who matter.

This is the point where intensive lobbying by groups such as the NRA come in. One of the most significant weapons that lobbying groups with a big grass-roots membership can wield is the ability to affect enough actual voters in a state to sway a Senate election. That in turn takes advantage of differences in the intensity with which groups of voters hold their views on key issues. The side with the most intense followers generally has a real advantage when it comes to voter turnout.

It is also possible that senators viewed this legislation as more than just the same type of straightforward, simple up-or-down vote on background checks as measured by the survey question. In fact, the legislation per se is complicated and, as is true of most bills, written in a very complex way to cover many possibilities. Some senators could have objected to specifics in the bill rather than its overall purpose.

It’s possible that senators viewed voting for a specific gun control measure as indicative of a general gun control philosophy, even if constituents favored the specific measure. In other words, voting for background checks could have been seen as the "nose of the camel in the tent," or as legislation that would lead to more than background checks, or as legislation that was in fact symbolic of gun control legislation more generally. While 91% of Americans support background checks, 58% say gun control laws need to be made stricter in general. So there is some disjuncture there in Americans', as well as perhaps in senators', minds.

And there is the issue of priority, which I reviewed here. The American public does not give guns and government efforts to control gun violence through legislation the highest priority at this time.

Finally, there is the fact that many elected representatives don't necessarily believe it is their purpose to slavishly reflect public opinion on the key issues of the day, but rather to give their constituencies the benefit of their thoughtful wisdom and deliberation. Thus, the response of these representatives (and other observers) is that a disjuncture between public opinion and the vote of elected representatives is not unusual or something to be disdained. Typically, of course, this old "delegate versus trustee" argument is used by individuals or groups when it is to their advantage. If public opinion is in favor of one's position, one evokes public opinion as the rationale for representatives voting in that direction. If public opinion goes against one's position, then one argues that the public is not aware of all the circumstances and implications and context, and one praises the independence of the representatives in voting the other way.

Still, that 91% figure -- the percentage of Americans who favor criminal background checks -- is extremely large. Rarely do we find nine in 10 Americans agreeing on anything. Despite all of the possible reasons why the disjuncture between public opinion and the Senate vote occurred, this is one of the more striking examples of what is a fairly unusual disconnect between public opinion and the vote of the representatives elected to serve them.


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