It isn’t the gun lobby

In the wake of the failure of the self-styled “bipartisan” gun control legislation in the U.S. Senate, many supporters of the bill sponsored by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Penn., and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., are coming unhinged.

President Barack Obama accused the National Rifle Association (full disclosure: I am an NRA member) of “willfully lying” to senators about the bill. He accused senators of voting out of fear and of not being able to articulate a single reason to vote against it, saying, “There are no coherent arguments for why we didn’t do this.”

The most famous and sympathetic advocate of the bill, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., made no attempt to hide her contempt or anger at the senators who blocked the legislation, in an OpEd for the New York Times.

Said Giffords, “On Wednesday, a minority of senators gave into fear and blocked common-sense legislation that would have made it harder for criminals and people with dangerous mental illnesses to get hold of deadly firearms — a bill that could prevent future tragedies like those in Newtown, Conn., Aurora, Colo., Blacksburg, Va., and too many communities to count.”

In the aftermath, gun control advocates have frequently cited the fact that many recent polls have shown that nearly 90 percent, including 75 percent of NRA members, favor background checks and stricter gun laws.

How then, in the face of such a unified American public demanding action, could these senators reject this “common-sense legislation,” as Giffords put it?

Well, to put it bluntly, because the American people really don’t care.

When talking about public opinion, the intensity of the public’s beliefs regarding an issue are more important than the actual beliefs themselves.

In a poll conducted in the beginning of April, Gallup surveyed 1,005 adults by telephone and asked, “What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today?”

Gun control was way down the list, behind the economy, unemployment and jobs, dissatisfaction with government, the budget deficit, health care, moral decline, immigration and education. Only 4 percent of respondents said that gun control was the most important problem facing this country.

The only people who really care enough about the issue to force action on it are the people asking those types of questions to their fellow citizens in the first place.

Because of the low intensity of people’s feelings about this issue, coupled with conflicting attitudes about guns (a recent survey showed that roughly 60 percent of Americans believed owning a gun in the home made them safer), members of Congress were not afraid of a public opinion backlash for voting no.

But far from being “afraid of the NRA,” the reasons for these senators voting no were plentiful.

To begin with, the arguments of people like Giffords are full of non sequiturs and emotional arguments, which cite no logic to back up their points.

For instance, Giffords claimed that this was “a bill that could prevent future tragedies like those in Newtown, Conn., Aurora, Colo., Blacksburg, Va., and too many communities to count.” Yet this is not true, as these shooters, being first time violent offenders, likely would not have had trouble passing a background check.

Everyone reacts emotionally to the death of innocents, particularly children. The people who voted no live in this country, too, and most of them have children and grandchildren who they want to keep safe. To suggest they are any less horrified by a mass shooting or somehow value the opinion of the NRA over their own beliefs about this issue is insulting.

We live in a representative republic, not a direct democracy, and our lawmakers are called on to make decisions based on logic, reason and fact, rather than their emotions or the fickle nature of public opinion. Emotional decisions are frequently the worst decisions we as human being make, and public opinion is quite often simply wrong.

Lawmakers who make decisions that fly in the face of public opinion (particularly low-intensity public opinion) and reject the emotional desire to “do something” just for the sake of doing something are very often showing wisdom rather than cynical obstructionism.

What is left, is what is right and what is wrong. The people who voted yes believe the bill would make us safer and wouldn’t infringe on the American right to bear arms. The people who voted no believe it would do nothing to make us safer and would unnecessarily restrict our freedoms.

Which side you ultimately agree with is up to you, but base your decision on coherent, logical reasons, and ignore public opinion.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.