WASHINGTON — Why is it so hard for even the most modest gun-control effort to succeed?
The easy answer is the power of the gun lobby, but the obstacles are far more complex. Growing numbers of people distrust Washington. A deeply rooted gun culture sees big government as a threat to its security, not to mention its constitutional rights. Members of Congress from conservative areas are well aware that votes on gun control, even in baby steps, are politically perilous.
Gun control advocates thought their task would be so different this week. President Barack Obama was making a passionate, heartfelt pitch unlike almost any he’d made before during his presidency. A congressional colleague, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was severely wounded during the Tucson shootings two years ago, visited the Capitol to make her plea. Families of recent shooting victims visited senators and watched them vote.
But what began as an energetic effort to finally get something new on the books wound up in defeat after defeat, and on Thursday the bill was pulled. There’s no telling when it will return or what might change if it does, because switching votes is going to require changing some profoundly held views.
The biggest hurdle is overcoming the long-simmering, ever-growing public fear that government is too intrusive and incompetent. That attitude almost scuttled the 2010 health care law, as people resented government forcing them to buy coverage. People also became concerned that “death panels” would be created to determine who’d live or die.
They weren’t, but Republicans have tried nearly three dozen times to repeal the law, which will require nearly everyone to obtain health insurance next year or pay a fine. More government intrusion, they say.
The resistance to more gun control follows a similar pattern.
“There certainly is an erosion of trust and confidence in the competence of government,” said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, one of four Republicans who voted to toughen background checks. “People often don’t trust government to protect them, and there’s a very distressing lack of any confidence government will keep its word.”
A Pew Research Center survey this month found that only 13 percent of Republicans have favorable views of the federal government, compared with 27 percent of independents and 41 percent of Democrats. Gun rights advocates argue that if Washington wants to gain some trust, it should enforce the laws that already are on the books.
“More gun laws are not the solution,” said Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho. And when gun control advocates try even to tinker with gun laws, they tinker with what Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., called “the depth of feeling about the Second Amendment.”
Millions of Americans grow up with guns in the home, for hunting, self-defense and other uses. “In northern Maine, guns are part of the lifestyle,” Collins said.
Learning to use a gun is as common as learning to drive a car or use hand tools, and any effort by Washington to infringe on that right is viewed with suspicion. That’s why even a mild form of gun control – expanding background checks to gun shows and online sales while exempting private transactions – got nowhere.
“People see it as the nose under the camel’s tent,” former Senate Republican leader Trent Lott said. “They ask, ‘Where does this end?’ ”
Add to this mix some raw politics. Of the five Democrats who voted against expanded background checks, three face difficult re-elections next year: Montana’s Max Baucus, Alaska’s Mark Begich and Arkansas’ Mark Pryor. North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, whose state Obama lost last year by nearly 20 percentage points, joined them. So did Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, though he voted no only for procedural reasons.
While polls suggest that the senators’ re-elections probably won’t be won or lost on gun issues, gun interests are well-heeled and offer a simple explanation as to why the background check plan was misguided.
“Expanding background checks, at gun shows or elsewhere, will not reduce violent crime or keep our kids safe in their schools,” said Chris Cox, the executive director of the Institute for Legislative Action, the political and lobbying arm of the National Rifle Association.
Change is especially difficult in this age of polarization. An NBC News analysis found that 39 of the votes against the expanded background checks came from senators in states that Obama didn’t carry. Two of the swing votes who sided with the opponents, Nevada’s Dean Heller and New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, both Republicans, were from states that Obama won.
If a gun control measure makes it to the House of Representatives, the red-blue state divide is likely to be more obvious. Republicans control 233 of the 435 seats there, and districts often are so carefully drawn that most are downright politically monolithic.
Will the gun control forces’ task get any easier? They say yes, that as people become more educated, as Obama presses harder, as the victims’ families keep up the heat, people will come around.
It won’t be that easy, said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who explained, “It’s very hard for someone from a gun culture to vote for gun control.”