Fuzzy Gun Math: How 90 Percent Became 51, But Is Really Just 49

04/12/2013 12:00 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2013

Ninety percent of Americans support expanding background checks on people who want to purchase a gun. This is more people than support the Star Spangled Banner as the national anthem. And yet, when the Senate brings a bill to the floor this week to provide for such background checks, it may fail. How is that?

Let's take a look at how 90 percent support translates in our supposedly democratic system into a potentially failed bill.

First, where is that support distributed? Polls have shown that support for regulations on gun ownership is stronger in urban areas than in rural areas. But as a result of both gerrymandering and geography, urban voices are underrepresented in Congress. This produces an excessive number of districts in which support for gun safety is lower than national averages.

But even taking that into account, there are clearly a majority of congressional districts in which a majority of the population support background checks. So it should be an easy vote for those members, right? Wrong. The National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups have amassed a significant war chest that they use to tar and feather any member supporting background checks. This notwithstanding the fact that up until February the NRA supported background checks and 74 percent of its members support background checks. (But the NRA doesn't actually represent its members; it represents the interests of the gun industry, which contributes more than half of the NRA's revenues and has no desire to see further impediments to a person's ability to buy more guns).

With its bags of lobbyist cash, the NRA runs television commercials that deceive the public into thinking background checks are something far more sinister. One spurious argument the NRA has made is that background checks are just the tip of the spear in a government conspiracy to confiscate guns from lawful owners. And gun owners believe this, 53 percent to 34 percent, even though no one has actually proposed gun confiscation and the Constitution would almost certainly not allow it. Ideally, citizens would be able to spot these lies and dismiss them, but that underestimates the persuasive and manipulative power of well-funded political advertising.

Suffice it to say that once the NRA digs into its $300 million budget for a spate of deceptive ads, the number of people who support background checks might drop, maybe from 90 percent to 70 percent, but still a solid super majority! Should still pass, right?


That's because even a 70 percent majority of the public doesn't translate into a majority of Senators. Indeed, just as House gerrymandering dilutes the voice of gun safety supporters, our Senate by Constitutional design does the same thing. New York and California have four Senators to represent nearly 60 million people; Utah and Oklahoma have four Senators to represent roughly one tenth of that. In that one tenth, support for gun safety laws is already lower than elsewhere. Throw in some heavy NRA influence in those states and support drops further. Add to the mix that those states are represented by Republican Senators who have more to fear from a conservative primary challenger than a Democrat, and those Senators have every incentive to fight hard to block a background check bill.

Lucky for them, the Senate gives them just such a mechanism: the filibuster. This week, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced he'd join 13 other Republican Senators in filibustering any background check bill. Thankfully, the bill cleared their initial attempt to prevent debate, but that group will have several more opportunities to use the filibuster to block progress. Should they do that, the bill would require not 51 votes, but 60. The result: if 51 Senators vote in favor of expanded background checks, they really only have the power of 49.

And there you have it -- a public policy with 90 percent support translates into only 51 votes with the power of only 49. A super, super, super majority becomes a narrow minority as a result of gerrymandered districts, a flood of money into the political system and the misuse of the Senate filibuster.

This isn't the only issue on which this happens. Eighty-eight percent of Americans support government action to fight global warming notwithstanding economic costs, nine in 10 Americans say there is too much corporate money in politics, and seven in 10 Americans say the drug war is a failure.

We live in a country in which our government is gridlocked but our people are not. It's no wonder Congress has an approval rating of 13 percent. But there is one weapon left at our disposal: our vote. If you're frustrated by this subversion of democracy, take a minute and call the Senate today: (202) 224-3121. Ask for your state's Senator and tell him or her you want background checks on all gun purchasers. Imagine what would be possible if our representatives in Congress actually had to represent us.