Saturday 25 October 2014

Anti-gun control senators are caught in voters' cross-hairs

John Avlon

Published 06/05/2013 | 05:00

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin waves as she enters the stage to speak during the NRA-ILA Leadership Forum at the George R. Brown Convention Center, the site for the National Rifle Association's annual meeting in Houston, Texas on May 3, 2013. President Barack Obama and national media are demonizing law-abiding gun owners in the wake of recent violent acts, National Rifle Association leaders and political allies said on Friday at its first convention since the Connecticut school massacre. Organizers expect some 70,000 attendees at the 142nd NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits in Houston, which began on Friday and continues through Sunday. REUTERS/Adrees Latif (UNITED STATES - Tags: SOCIETY POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Republican presidential hopefuls and conservative pin-up stars like Sarah Palin (wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan 'women hunt' in pink letters) descended on the National Rifle Association's 142nd annual meeting in Houston, Texas over the weekend.

The mood by all accounts was triumphant, after the recent defeat in the Senate of a modest bipartisan compromise bill expanding background checks on gun buyers.

But the national debate over guns continues to rage four months after the Sandy Hook school slaughter.

The proposal, crafted by Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, enjoyed the support of 90pc of Americans according to polls.

But popular will was unable to win in the face of opposition from gun lobbyists like the NRA, who pushed the idea that expanding background checks to ensure that criminals and the mentally-ill could not buy weapons would lead to a national gun registry and then eventual confiscation – despite the fact that the bill included provisions that made any creation of a federal registry an offense with guaranteed prison-time.

Facts don't seem to matter when fear-mongering is involved and 41 Republicans and five Democrats in the Senate voted against the bill.

Conservative Senator Toomey offered an additional reason for the bill's at least temporary defeat: "It didn't pass because we're so politicised," Mr Toomey said. "There were some on my side who did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it."

Let that sink in – indelible evidence of just how far the rot of hyper-partisanship is hurting Americans' ability to reason together. But there is a backlash brewing, adding emphasis to Mr Manchin's determination that the bill will come up for another vote this summer. New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte is among the 'no' votes feeling the heat from her swing state constituents. At a town hall meeting, she was confronted by Erica Lafferty, the daughter of the Sandy Hook school principal killed in the attack.

"You had mentioned that day the burden on owners of gun stores that the expanded background checks would harm," Ms Lafferty said to Ms Ayotte. "I am just wondering why the burden of my mother being gunned down in halls of her elementary school isn't more important than that."

The video went viral and now Ms Ayotte's in-state approval ratings are in a freefall, with 11pc more New Hampshire residents disapproving of her performance than the previous month – a 21pc slide among moderate voters.

Likewise, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake – who wrote to a mother of a man killed in the July 2012 Aurora theatre shooting that "strengthening background checks is something we agree on" – voted against the bill and now finds 58pc of Arizona independent voters disapproving of his performance, leading him to admit he was now considered "somewhere just below pond scum".

In contrast, two southern Democratic senators – Louisiana's Mary Landrieu and North Carolina's Kay Hagan – have found their poll numbers rising after taking a risky 'yes' vote on the background check bill.

America's gun debates might mystify people overseas because it is part of its pioneer culture – and the deeper fault lines are cultural, reflecting rural versus urban divides more than Republican versus Democratic party labels. But beneath all their interesting differences there is broad agreement about reasonable restrictions like expanded background checks – which is why two senators with A-ratings from the NRA, Manchin and Toomey, could come together to define common ground.

The resistance is among activists and absolutists rather than most Main-Street Americans who recognise that there is a reasonable balance between freedom and security instead of subscribing to a dystopian slippery slope vision of society and legislation. None of this has stopped the Republican National Committee from running a web ad blaming Barack Obama for a lack of leadership resulting in the failure of the background check bill.

At the NRA convention, other speakers accused the president of trying to "use tragedy to restrict freedom". But the pushback senators are getting for votes that ignore the beliefs of a vast majority of their constituents might just compel constructive reassessment.

Enlightened self-interest has a way of changing minds. Facts will ultimately outweigh fear-mongering. (© Daily Telegraph London)

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