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‘90 Percent’? Not So Fast . . .


In his extraordinary temper tantrum in the Rose Garden last Wednesday afternoon, President Obama told the nation that he simply couldn’t understand how a bill with 90 percent support could be defeated by the Senate. “By now,” the president claimed plaintively,

it’s well known that 90 percent of the American people support universal background checks that make it harder for a dangerous person to buy a gun. . . . So while this compromise didn’t contain everything I wanted or everything that these families wanted, it did represent progress. It represented moderation and common sense. That’s why 90 percent of the American people supported it.

He continued:

I’ve heard some say that blocking this step would be a victory. And my question is, a victory for who? A victory for what? All that happened today was the preservation of the loophole that lets dangerous criminals buy guns without a background check. That didn’t make our kids safer. Victory for not doing something that 90 percent of Americans, 80 percent of Republicans, the vast majority of your constituents wanted to get done? It begs the question, who are we here to represent? 

The answer, Obama averred somewhat predictably, was for his side to organize:

The point is those who care deeply about preventing more and more gun violence will have to be as passionate, and as organized, and as vocal as those who blocked these common-sense steps to help keep our kids safe. Ultimately, you outnumber those who argued the other way.  But they’re better organized. They’re better financed. They’ve been at it longer. And they make sure to stay focused on this one issue during election time. And that’s the reason why you can have something that 90 percent of Americans support and you can’t get it through the Senate or the House of Representatives.

Obama might have been perplexed at the failure of his pet project or he might have been pretending to be perplexed. Who knows? Either way, it should have been be fairly obvious to anybody who follows American politics that his statements were contradictory. It makes little sense simultaneously to hold that ”90 percent” of Americans wanted the Senate’s bill and that 40-plus senators caved in fear of losing their seats. Likewise, it it is nonsensical to argue that the NRA is extremely powerful and that it is also way out of line with American democratic opinion. The “gun lobby” works by telling voters, “your representative voted like this on guns.” Then the voters vote. The “gun lobby,” contrary to the president’s implication, does not have a vote. If the NRA steps too far out of line, it will lose its power.

Convinced by his own rhetoric, the president urged:

So to change Washington, you, the American people, are going to have to sustain some passion about this.  And when necessary, you’ve got to send the right people to Washington.  And that requires strength, and it requires persistence. 

Clearly, “the American people” did not get the message. A USA Today poll released today asked the question, “Should Congress pass a new gun-control law?” 49 percent of respondents thought that it should, 45 percent said that it should not. Five percent didn’t know or refused to answer. (The margin of error was +/- 4 percentage points.) The answers were collected between Thursday and Sunday — in the aftermath of the Senate vote and the president’s speech, in other words. USA Today’s up or down inquiry is considerably more instructive than is vague talk of ”background checks.” Unfortunately for the president, it shows that there really is no great groundswell of support for changing the status quo. One can only presume that Barack Obama wishes he had known this before he went on television and explained that he couldn’t get a bill with 90 percent support through Congress, but then sometimes life ain’t fair.


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