What Really Sank Gun Control: Distrust of Government

Senator Joe Manchin defends Democrats who opposed background-check legislation, scolds Mike Bloomberg, and says Pat Toomey is still on board.
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Senators Pat Toomey and Joe Manchin at the unveiling of their compromise bill on expanded background checks (Reuters)

Think gun control failed in the Senate because of gun-clutching extremists? Or because of fanatical radicals who want to abolish the Second Amendment? Senator Joe Manchin, who's been at the heart of the effort, says it's nothing of the sort. In fact, the central problem really has nothing to do with firearms at all -- it's about trust.

When he speaks to gun owners, "they're scared this is the first step" in a massive government overreach, said Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat. He made the remarks during an interview with Margaret Carlson at New York Ideas, a daylong conference sponsored by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute.

"When you say universal background check, the first thing that comes in the mind of a gun owner is that means registration, and registration means confiscation. 'I haven't broken the laws, why do you want to know everything?'" he said. According to Manchin, even in gun-loving West Virginia, constituents he spoke with repeatedly told him that if the bill did only what it said it does, they would wholeheartedly support it. ("There's a lot the NRA likes in this bill," he added.) The problem is, they're skeptical that the bill will in fact go farther than it claims. That means the effort to pass it on a second try will require emphasizing, for example, the harsh penalties associated with keeping records past a certain period.

"I have never seen something that resonated with so many people in so many parts of society because it made so much sense," Manchin said. "When something makes that much sense, you have facts to back you up, and you just have to walk out into your community and explain it."

Understanding the mentality of senators, Manchin quipped, was much harder than understanding gun owners. But he implicitly rejected President Obama's angry condemnation of senators who opposed the plan Manchin hatched with Republican Senator Pat Toomey as "shameful." To Manchin, the calculation that red-state Democrats who voted against the bill made -- including Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Max Baucus of Montana -- was rational and understandable, even if he disagreed.

There was more castigation, however gentle, for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose group Mayors Against Illegal Guns has targeted Democrats, and his allies. It's important to consider the way a red-state senator would view the situation, Manchin said, and it makes more sense to help rally support among constituents -- to create a "permission structure," as Obama might say -- so that the senators can switch their votes.

"If you were in a state such as West Virginia or North Dakota or Arkansas, which is a rural state and it's mostly gone red in national elections, how would you approach that? Would you say, 'I'm going to beat Joe Manchin up because he didn't vote the way he should have?'" Manchin asked. "Or would you say, 'I'm going to appeal to law-abding gun owners in the state,' and give me enough support from my constituents that I don't have to do hand-to-hand combat with?"

There's little profit in attacking a senator once the vote is made, he said -- especially if, like the retiring Baucus or the newly reelected Manchin, the official won't face voters for six more years or ever again. "If you beat me up now, I'm going to hunker back and defend my position. I've already made my vote! Right or wrong, I made my decision," he said. "Don't back me up against a wall."

But Manchin remains optimistic about the chances to pass the law. Although Toomey has appeared publicly unenthusiastic about a second attempt, Manchin insisted that the conservative Pennsylvanian would be on board and still supports the compromise. The nation will know soon enough whether campaigners are able to put Manchin's ideas into use -- and whether that strategy is enough to pass the first major gun legislation in two decades.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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