Over the last 28 months, a congresswoman was shot in the head and nearly died, a gunman killed and wounded more than 70 people in a movie theater, 20 first graders were gunned down in their elementary school, a 15-year-old girl came to Washington for President Obama‘s inauguration and was shot and killed by a stray bullet when she returned home, more than 500 people died in homicides, most of which involved guns, in a single year in America’s third-largest city, the mayor of America’s largest city pumped millions of dollars into getting a gun control provision passed in Congress that polls show close to 90 percent of Americans support, and families of shooting victims spent a week personally meeting with members of Congress to advocate for gun control.
And yet, not a single major gun control provision has passed in Washington.
A few months ago, politicians in both parties were declaring everything had changed involving gun policy in America after the Newtown shooting.
They were wrong. An already slimmed-down proposal to expand background checks to more gun sales was rejected by a combination of nearly all Republicans and four Democrats in the Senate on Wednesday, after provisions to ban high-capacity magazines and assault weapons had already been largely abandoned.
A complete victory by the NRA
“Instead of supporting this compromise, the gun lobby and its allies willfully lied about this bill,” a fiery President Barack Obama said in a speech after the vote. He called the failure of the bill a “shameful day for Washington,” and casts its opponents, including Democrats, as offering “no coherent arguments” against expanded background checks.
The defeat of the background check proposal represents a complete victory by the National Rifle Association and other anti-gun control forces. Gun control legislation was always going to have trouble passing in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which is packed with ardent conservatives who worry most about primary challenges from the political right, but it failed even in the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats who watered down a background check bill as much as possible and still couldn’t find the votes for it.
The reasons the gun control push failed are long: the strongest gun control backers live in blue states, whose power is weaker in Congress than at the ballot box; conservative Democrats and even some Republicans are perhaps irrationally concerned about the National Rifle Association; critics of gun control correctly argue it’s not clear if the mass shootings would be stopped by any of these provisions — perhaps Congress and President Obama should have pushed for gun control immediately after the Newtown shootings instead of waiting a few months for a vote.
Conservative minority wields more power
The failure suggests that gun control holds a singular place in American politics in which a conservative minority wields much more power than the majority of Americans, who support more background checks and other measures pushed by liberals to reduce gun violence.
The views of President Obama and the coalition of voters who backed him are increasingly ascendant on other issues: Support for gay marriage is growing, tax hikes on the rich have been passed, many GOP governors are starting to implement “Obamacare,” and Republicans seem willing to adapt changes in immigration laws that Hispanics in particular are seeking.
But gun control failed despite an aggressive, coordinated campaign behind it that included strong leadership from President Obama and Vice President Biden, a passionate and unusually political speech by Michelle Obama last week and repeated public appearances by the families of the Newtown children, Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, and the parents of Hadiya Pendleton.
The states have taken the lead
Some liberal-leaning states such as Connecticut, Colorado and New York have already passed gun control legislation, leading some to argue that gun limits aren’t yet ripe for the national stage but will eventually be adopted by Congress.
But such a claim ignores what has happened over the last three years; a series of shocking crimes have been committed with guns that affect every part of the population: blacks, whites, urbanities, people in the suburbs, children and members of Congress.
And no legislation has been passed in the wake of any of these shootings. If not after Newtown, when?
“Sooner or later, we are going to get this right,” Obama promised.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr