Gun control presents the greatest test in recent memory of whether we still have a representative democracy in the United States. Despite national polls showing 92 per cent support for background checks, as well as strong support for several other proposals, the chances of any gun control legislation passing Congress this year are rapidly diminishing. If you favor any gun control legislation, now is the time to contact your senators and your representative in Congress, particularly if they are Republicans. It may be too late, but only enormous constituent pressure can alter the course of events.
We are supposed to have a representative democracy in the United States, but when it comes to gun control, the NRA and the gun manufacturers may overrule the popular will. No matter how many kids are killed. No matter if a member of Congress is shot, Congress appears ready once again to follow the dictates of a small minority. How can they ignore the unprecedented near-unanimous support for gun control? Are you going to let them get away with it now, and when they come up for re-election?
Or, is it possible we no longer have a representative democracy?
The Constitution provides for checks and balances among the branches of government, and also within the legislative branch, with a Senate that has two members from each state, regardless of state population, and a House of Representatives comprised of members elected from districts of approximately the same population size, the actual configuration of those districts done by state legislatures.
There were a number of reasons why the structure was chosen by the delegates to the 1787 Convention that wrote the Constitution as a replacement of the Articles of Confederation that did not provide enough power to the national government. The nation had just freed itself from English rule and delegates feared despotism from a too-strong federal government, or executive, as well as the popular temper, the “crowd” running roughshod over minority rights, subsequently dubbed “the tyranny of the majority,” and delegates from Southern states worried that slavery would be outlawed if they did not have blocking power in Congress. The two senators per state provided a limitation on the more democratic House of Representatives, and the blocking power the Southern states wanted, which still can be used in the Senate through the filibuster.
Since the very beginning of the country the configuration of Congressional districts has been manipulated by state legislatures according to which political party controlled the state legislature. Called “Gerrymandering” after Massachusetts Gov. (and later Vice President) Elbridge Gerry, first applied it to legislative districts following his election in 1810, the practice involves the consolidation of voters likely to vote the same way within the same districts to reduce the number of districts they might control. Thus, a district may be drawn by a Republican legislature to include as many of the black voters in an area as possible. That district may be safe for the Democratic Party, but the result is that several other adjoining districts may have a sufficient number of white voters to make them safe for the Republican Party, when one, or more, might not be safe for the Republicans if the black voters were distributed more logically, according to geography, among all the districts.
The exact opposite approach might be taken by a Democratic Party-controlled legislature by distributing the black voters among as many districts as necessary to make them competitive for Democratic candidates. There is nothing illegal about this practice, although extreme cases sometimes have been successfully challenged in court.
The effect of Gerrymandering is very evident in the current House of Representatives. In 2010 the Republican Party was very successful not only winning control of the House, but also of a number of important state legislatures and governorships. In those states, which included Pennsylvania, a state that almost always has a majority Democratic vote, Republican legislatures Gerrymandered their congressional districts to maximum effect. In the 2012 election, Democrats received more votes in Congressional races in total across the country, but still did not win control of the House.
The Republicans traditionally have opposed virtually all forms of gun control. The NRA, and the gun manufacturers, are major contributors to candidates, mostly Republicans, who oppose gun control. The NRA scores members of Congress as to how favorable they are to NRA positions and the NRA is legendary for its ability to get its members to vote, and to vote on the basis of the position candidates take on gun control. Even though the NRA only has 4 million members, their bloc voting strength can be a deciding factor in close elections, especially in conservative states.
With Republican control of the House, it is questionable whether any gun control bill even will be voted on, say nothing of being approved. The Speaker of the House controls what bills get voted on, and the general practice of Speaker John Boehner has been to not allow votes on Democratic-sponsored bills. President Obama made a big issue of this in his State of the Union speech when he repeatedly, and emotionally, demanded that the victims of gun violence “deserve a vote.”
The big question today, given the overwhelming support for gun control shown in polling, is whether that polling support can be converted into votes. Will those who favor more gun control vote, and vote for candidates who have supported gun control, and thus cancel out the NRA vote? Voting patterns in the past are not encouraging. But there is a bigger problem.
Despite national polls, the vast majority of gun-related murders occur in only one third of the states, and while it might be expected that gun control would be an important issue in these states, in a majority of them it is unlikely to receive wide support.
Of the 9,400 gun-related killings in the U.S. in 2010, 81 per cent occurred in 18 states. In declining number of gun-related murders those states are: California, Texas, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey, Arizona, Tennessee and South Carolina. Even with high gun-related murders, a majority of these states historically have had strong anti-gun control positions. Thirteen of them have Republican governors today and 13 have Republican-controlled legislatures.
Then there are 17 states that had fewer than 50 gun-related murders in 2010 and collectively had fewer murders than the 286 in North Carolina. These are: Delaware, Oregon, Nebraska, West Virginia, Utah, Iowa, Alaska, Rhode Island, Montana, Idaho, Maine, South Dakota, Hawaii, Wyoming, New Hampshire, North Dakota and Vermont. A majority of these states are controlled by Republicans, and are traditionally conservative, not supportive of gun control.
Thus, the national polls that show overwhelming support for gun control in various forms may be deceptive. In many states the support may be nothing more than lip-service. In many states the opposition, while theoretically in the minority, may be much better organized, and much better positioned, politically. Also, a factor in polling may be how the questions are asked. Substantially higher support is found for gun control in polls that ask for opinions on particular measures, such as background checks, than in polls that simply ask whether there should be stricter gun control.
The Democrats are in a very difficult political position. If they lose six seats in the 2014 election, they will lose control of the Senate. There are at least eight states where present Democratic seats are vulnerable. No Republican seats appear to be especially vulnerable. There are open seats in West Virginia, Iowa and South Dakota where present Democratic incumbents are not seeking re-election. West Virginia and South Dakota are strong Republican states that did not vote for President Obama in 2012, and the Republicans have a good chance of picking up those seats.
Democratic incumbents seeking re-election who may be vulnerable are Max Baucus of Montana, Kay Hagen of North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Besich of Alaska and Mark Prior of Arkansas. None of these states voted for President Obama in 2012 and none is known to be particularly supportive of gun control. NRA opposition to the Democratic incumbents in these states could be decisive. It seems very unlikely right now that these senators will support much in the way of gun control, almost certainly nothing more than background checks, if that.
Three of the Senate's leading Republican wing nuts, Rand Paul, of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas, and Mike Lee, of Utah, are threatening to filibuster any gun control legislation in the Senate. That means it will take 60 votes to get any action in the Senate. If all Democratic senators vote together, which currently seems unlikely, it still will take four Republicans to break the filibuster. In reality it probably will take quite a few more.
For that to happen, constituents will have to put enormous pressure on their senators and members of the House of Representatives. Member of Congress have to believe that support will continue through the 2014 and 2016 elections, so that their failure to vote for gun control now will cost them their seats when they come up for re-election. There is no time to lose. If there will be a vote on gun control in the Senate this year, it will come very soon, probably in the next couple of weeks.
A representative democracy cannot be taken away from the people without force unless we allow it to happen. Do we, the people, really support gun control? If so, now is the time to prove it.