Commentary Magazine


Triumph of the Slippery Slope Argument on Gun Control?

One of the often-quoted pieces of advice about modern politics is: first you win the argument, then you win the vote. On gun control, President Obama thought he did the former, and assumed he’d then achieve the latter. In reality, he did neither.

Yesterday, I criticized the way Obama conducted the argument over gun control, as well as the excuses some of his supporters made for why his favored gun control bill failed: he’s too nice to threaten, too proud to beg, his government too poor to bribe (a great, if unrelated, argument in favor of austerity, perhaps). And I did so on the grounds that Obama has been overstating, or overestimating, the public support for gun control. Today, the Washington Post reports on its new poll on gun control. Was the country as furious at the failure of the gun bill as the president was? According to the Post:

Not so much, according to a new Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll. Yes, a plurality (47 percent) describe themselves as either “angry” or “disappointed” about the failure of the gun legislation, but 39 percent call themselves “relieved” or “happy” about what happened. That’s a far cry from the 90-ish percent support that expanding background checks — the centerpiece of the proposed legislation — enjoyed.

And, among those who said they were “very closely” keeping tabs on the vote, the split was even closer; 48 percent said they were angry/disappointed while 47 percent were relieved or happy. (That piece of data is indicative of the passion gap on the issue between those supporting gun rights and those pushing for more restrictions.)

A key argument of the president’s supporters after the bill failed was that this was a case of democracy denied. The president says the country agrees with him, therefore the Congress should vote accordingly. But it turns out to be more complicated than that. Obama was right that background checks had broad support among the general population, but he seems to have lost the argument that those background checks would not be part of either a slippery slope or an extended effort to limit gun rights. As the Post explains:

Viewed broadly, the new Post-Pew poll numbers suggest that, in the end, the Senate vote last week wound up functioning in the minds of most Americans as a sort of stand-in for how they feel about gun rights more generally as opposed to the specifics (background checks in particular) of the legislation.

So, not surprisingly, those who were most angry about the failure of the gun bill were reliably Democratic groups such as those with postgraduate degrees and those living in the Northeast.

Democracy worked, in other words. This should have been obvious, because members of Congress are generally attuned to the opinions and habits of their constituents. That doesn’t mean they never cross those voters, or that they always vote for what the majority of their constituents want in any given case. But if, as Obama had said repeatedly, 90 percent of voters backed the gun legislation, something else would have to have been at play in the minds the senators who voted against it.

Could mere partisanship explain it? Doubtful, since the vote failed to rally key Democrats as well, so there was bipartisan opposition to the bill (just as there was bipartisan support for it). Obama likes to believe that NRA fearmongering was to blame. But if the public was overwhelmingly on one side of the issue, what power would a lobbyist hold over an individual lawmaker by putting the lobby on the wrong side of public opinion?

The answer is, the argument Obama lost was not over limited background checks but on the role of the federal government when it comes to regulating guns. There’s a good reason for this: Obama originally and publicly pushed for a so-called assault weapons ban, but the votes for it weren’t there–not even close. The White House’s response to the failure of the gun ban was not to accept public opinion on it but rather to promise (threaten?) they would be back later for the gun ban, and would not back down. Thus Obama communicated quite clearly to the public that the background checks were, if the president got his way, only the beginning of the administration’s renewed efforts to chip away at gun ownership.

The Post report concludes:

To their credit, the president and his White House tried like hell to emphasize that the proposals in the bill were ones that drew support across party lines. But, their failure to make that case effectively speaks to the entrenched views much of the country holds on guns. The conclusion? Most people simply weren’t really listening to the argument President Obama was trying to make.

That’s only partly true. They were listening to the argument Obama was trying to make in the context of the wider argument he has been making all along. The public and their representatives didn’t ignore the president. On the contrary, they listened carefully, and voted accordingly.

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