Barb Shelly: Whom do Roberts, Moran represent?

04/21/2013 12:00 AM

04/19/2013 6:46 PM

After hopes of even winning a rational debate in the U.S. Senate on gun safety fell apart last week, a woman leaving the gallery said of the senators, “Who do they think they represent?”

Good question. Not the 80 to 90 percent of Americans who support modest measures such as background checks at gun shows and for Internet gun sales, that’s for sure.

The answer would be the intense minority.

Take Kansas Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran. A good number of people throughout the state are undoubtedly furious with the two Republican senators for voting against gun safety. They will berate them in e-mails and phone calls and at public meetings.

But Roberts and Moran know that constituents who favor sensible gun-safety legislation aren’t likely to maintain the sustained anger that will hurt them at election time. And a number of people who favor gun control wouldn’t vote for the conservative GOP senators anyway.

Gun lovers, now, are a different matter. There are plenty of people in Kansas who believe, from the bottom of their hearts, that their guns are all that stands between their way of life and government tyranny. And they will reap eternal vengeance on politicians they perceive as taking any action to limit their right to bear arms.

Expanded background checks wouldn’t limit their Second Amendment rights, of course. But it’s all about perception.

Polls show that, nationwide, 90 percent of Democrats and 80 percent of Republicans favor expanded background checks.

But as Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, told the Washington Post, “If you ever wanted a textbook example of intensity trumping preference, this is it. You could have 100 percent of those polled saying they wanted universal background checks, and it would still be defeated. You can’t translate poll results into public policy.”

I can think of three ways in which we can change public policy when it comes to gun safety:

•  Pressure the U.S. Senate to change its rules. The background-check bill drew 54 votes on Wednesday. That’s a majority in a 100-member Senate, and it should be enough to determine public policy.
•  Work the swing states. In other words, the Michael Bloomberg strategy. The New York City mayor isn’t the best person to be trying to influence elections in a state like Missouri, but the idea of making gun safety a well-funded issue at election time is a good one.
•  Work the demographic changes. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., was able to co-sponsor the background-check bill because suburban women are a powerful voting bloc in his state, and they largely favor gun safety.

If the suburban moms got angry enough and motivated enough, lawmakers might be persuaded to see things in a different light.

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