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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Soft-on-Crime Anti-Background Check Vote Does Damage

Pile of hundreds of guns
With the retirement of Sen. Joe Lieberman, it looked like the era of Three Amigos might be over. By joining up with John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Lieberman joined a team of three Senators who were the source of some very bad ideas -- most of them involving throwing fistfuls or money at the Pentagon and Israel, backing military action as the only solution to pretty much every foreign policy problem, and attacking anyone unwilling to throw money and start shooting as muddleheaded, weak-in-the-face-of-terrorism wusses. It looked the Three Amigos had become two and America was in severe danger of benefiting from the loss. But along came young New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte and the Two Amigos were Three again. Brainless militarism once again had three guaranteed advocates.

But the new lineup may not be long-lasting -- at least, not if the newest compaƱera keeps ignoring the will of her constituents.

Huffington Post: A new poll has New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) down a total of 15 points from her previous approval rating in a survey that followed her vote against requiring background checks for firearms purchases.

Ayotte's plunge underscores the changing politics around gun control and gun safety. In years past, lawmakers worried that a vote for gun control would bring the anger of the National Rifle Association. In the new reality, votes against gun control also carry a political risk, as the Ayotte poll indicates.

A full three-quarters of New Hampshire voters support such background checks, along with 56 percent of Republicans, according to Public Policy Polling. A WMUR Granite State Poll taken in January and February found that more than 9 in 10 state residents supported implementing background checks at gun shows.
"In October, the last time that PPP surveyed voters about Ayotte, she had a 48-35 approval rating," Huffington Post reports. "She has now tumbled underwater, with 46 percent disapproving and 44 percent approving. The 11-point surge in disapproval threatens Ayotte's 2016 reelection, when she could face popular Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan. Ayotte won her 2010 race by 23 points, but in a hypothetical matchup against Hassan trails 46-44."


This isn't to say that every soft-on-crime vote will come with a cost for the Senator casting it. In fact, Nate Silver took a look at the question and found that it probably won't in a broad sense. Yes, people supported expanded background checks in overwhelming numbers, but supporting something and voting because of it are two different things. In a lot of races, voters may be disappointed in their Senators' votes on the background check bill, but that vote may be a lower priority than other issues. And Silver was looking at a more immediate impact in 2014, not the lasting impact of a protracted campaign by gun safety advocates through 2014, heading into the presidential campaign of 2016, and -- if necessary -- beyond.

The real stunner in the poll is in the almost overnight tumbling of the NRA from a seat of unquestionable power. Conventional wisdom of just a few months ago would've had Ayotte gaining votes and popularity, as the NRA paid her off rewarded her for helping leave the gunshow loophole wide open and allowing unlicensed gun dealers to continue to do business with criminals. But that pay off may not be enough to overcome the anger of New Hampshire voters -- and in any case, the pro-gun safety message clearly won the day there, even if Ayotte didn't realize it. The NRA's influence with New Hampshire voters seems to be pretty nonexistent.

Silver's piece looks at the background check vote as a 2014 hammer -- a bludgeon used against the party as a whole as an overriding strategy. But it may be that voting against curbing gun violence is a 2014, 2016, etc. scalpel; an ongoing, surgical effort to separate soft-on-crime senators and representatives from less gun-happy voting populations. After all, if the vote isn't hurting them nationwide, it's definitely hurting in New Hampshire. And if it's hurting in New Hampshire, it's got to be hurting elsewhere.

Gun-happy politicians and lobbyists are finding comfort in a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. That poll found that, post-background check filibuster, voters favor stricter gun control by only 49%-45%. But that poll asks only about generic "gun control" and not specific legislation or policies. The history of polling on the issue is the same as it is on many issues: if you poll on the buzzphrases, the results are very different from polling on specifics. The NRA and Republicans have been approaching the issue with a simpleminded, fortune cookie approach -- "gun control" is bad. They've avoided specifics because, when you get into real proposals, policies, and solutions, they all turn out to be common sense and reasonable. So the right does what the right always does -- target jerking knees, rather than engaged minds. And polling shows that isn't getting them majorities -- their numbers are still underwater.

The big takeaway from the NBC/WSJ poll is that gun safety advocates should continue to talk about specifics and the takeaway from the Granite State Poll is that we should be selective in targeting politicians, peeling off the vulnerable and leaving others worried about their left flanks on the issue. I keep saying that this is a long fight, but a necessary one. If the Ayotte numbers show us anything, it's that the NRA is already losing the long game.


[photo by roberthuffstutter]

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