US politicians feel the heat for votes against modest gun laws
Some opposed reform to spite Obama, writes John Avlon, but politicians now find voters do want change
Republican presidential hopefuls and conservative pin-up stars such as 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 this weekend.
The mood by all accounts was triumphant after the 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, and resolve seems only to have stiffened on both sides.
The proposal – crafted by Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania – enjoyed the support of 90 per cent of Americans, according to numerous polls.
But popular will was unable to win in the face of stiff opposition from gun lobbyists such as 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 a federal offence 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.
Mr Toomey offered an additional reason for the bill's at least temporary defeat. "It didn't pass because we're so politicised," he 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 our 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.
The New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte is among the 'No' voters against the bill 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 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 the 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 11 per cent more New Hampshire residents disapproving of her performance than the previous month – a 21 per cent slide among self-described 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 58 per cent of Arizona independent voters disapproving of his job performance, leading him to write on Facebook that 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 our pioneer culture. The deeper fault lines are cultural, reflecting rural versus urban divides rather than Republican versus Democrat labels.
But, beneath all our interesting differences, there is broad agreement about reasonable restrictions such as expanded background checks – which is why two senators with A ratings from the NRA, Mr Manchin and Mr 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.
At the NRA convention, speakers accused the president of trying to "use tragedy to restrict freedom". But the backlash that senators are getting for votes that ignore the beliefs of a vast majority of their constituents might just compel constructive reassessment. I choose to believe that facts will ultimately outweigh fear-mongering.
John Avlon is senior columnist and political director of Newsweek and The Daily Beast