Congress v. We the People

Taking the political temperature—that is, figuring out the opinions—of 325 million Americans can be complicated. We’ve disagreed with each other on many major issues, such as slavery and the power of the federal government, from the very beginnings of our country. In addition, we seem to be increasingly divided and argumentative. Nevertheless, there are at least two trends on which a majority of the population tends to agree. One of these is controlling access to guns. The other is providing a way for Dreamers—young people who came to the country as children and stayed without documentation—to become citizens. Here is what the latest opinion polls show.

In terms of access to weapons, about two-thirds of registered voters support stricter gun laws, according to CNN, CBS News, and Politico. Only about one-quarter of them oppose making it harder to buy guns. For example:

  • Almost 90 percent of people who support such laws want buyers to have to pass a background check before they can purchase a gun.
  • More than 80 percent want to bar violent criminals from buying guns.
  • More than 75 percent want to raise the age limit for purchase to twenty-one; ban bump stocks, which allow for rapid firing of arms; and enforce a three-day waiting period between purchase and delivery.

Most Americans also believe that the seven hundred thousand Dreamers who want to remain in the United States legally should be able to do so, and eventually become citizens. The well-respected Pew Research Center found, for example that nearly three-quarters of the population are in favor of granting legal resident status to these young people who grew up in America and consider it their home.

If there is widespread support among registered voters for both gun control and Dreamers, why haven’t our elected members of Congress passed laws to take action on these issues? The reason, in part, is related to our Constitution.

ConWethePeople1As we explain in Chapter 2 of Fault Lines in the Constitution, every state, regardless of the size of its population, is represented by two senators in the US Senate. So, California’s thirty-nine million residents have the same voice in Congress’s upper house as Vermont, with 625,000 people. At the state level, California has some of the strictest gun control laws in the country while Vermont has some of the loosest. These state laws reflect the views of the majority of their citizens. At the national level, though, each state has equal weight in the debate.

Overall, the Pew poll found, almost two-thirds of the people who live in rural areas—that is, states with low populations, such as Vermont—want to protect the rights of gun owners. Only about one-third of city-dwellers, like most Californians, do so. On the other hand, more than three-fifths of urbanites want gun control while only a third of rural residents do. But, again, rural states with low populations count as much in the Senate as urban states with lots of people.

Senators are elected to represent the views of the people in their states. So, as far as the Senate is concerned, it doesn’t matter that most Americans want to limit access to firearms.

The Senate is a factor for Dreamers, also. As we explain in Chapter 4 of Fault Lines, each house of Congress has the right to make rules for how it proceeds—for instance, when to send bills to committees and when to vote on them. Senators have the right to filibuster legislation—that is, talk on and on to prevent a bill from coming up for a vote. Both Republicans and Democrats have used this ability to keep laws they don’t like from passing.

ConWethePeople2The only way to stop a filibuster and force a vote is for sixty senators—a supermajority—to agree to end discussion. In 2010, a majority of the House of Representatives and a majority of the Senate supported the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, which would give Dreamers a way to become citizens eventually. However, the bill was filibustered, and only fifty-five senators voted to cut off debate. As a result, the act failed.

Although we generally believe that we have a representative government—and we often do have one—we do not always have a Congress that follows the wishes of the citizenry. There are many reasons this is the case. The Constitution is one of them.

7 comments

  1. It’s a common misconception, (In the case of informed advocates, it verges on a lie.) that there is widespread “support” for gun control.

    Opinion isn’t binary, it’s a vector, it has both direction AND magnitude. Often opinions have magnitude verging on zero, which is to say, they’re so weakly held that it’s misleading to claim they exist.

    And pollsters are well aware that if you ask somebody’s opinion on a subject they don’t actually care about, they usually won’t report that they have no opinion. They’ll pretend that they hold the opinion they think they’re expected to hold. In today’s media environment, are they going to think they’re expected to oppose gun control?

    This is a common factor in polling on gun control. Polls that ask people to *rank* issues in order of importance reliably show that most people rank gun control very low, especially if they’re required to name the issue themselves, rather than respond to a list. (March shows a blip due to intense media coverage, you can be pretty certain that by April or May it will be back down to the single digits again.) http://news.gallup.com/poll/1675/most-important-problem.aspx

    And, outside of media fueled hysteria storms, almost everybody who ranks it high is opposed to gun control.

    This is the real reason gun control has been political poison: Only the gun owners actually care.

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    1. Brett, your creds as an analyzer of polling suggest you should stick to judging poledancing. Keep in mind that the NRA once was an advocate of gun control. Now the NRA is funded by the gun industry and the the NRA in turn funds the Republicans in Congress to oppose gun control. For most of the time period since the 2nd A was ratified (1791) until the political change in the NRA late in the 20th century, gun rights claimants were political. It took Heller in 2008 (5-4) to change the long held views on the 2nd A as collective and related to the Militia. Frankly, Brett, you display hysteria with your NRA talking points.

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      1. The NRA was once an advocate of gun control, the reason it is no longer is that we members didn’t like that, and ousted the leadership that didn’t represent us. By voting; Unlike any of the anti-gun organizations, the NRA board is voted on by the membership.

        And anybody who claims the NRA is funded by the gun industry is demonstrating that they’re a gullible conspiracy theorist. It’s a common smear, but easily demonstrated to be false.

        http://money.cnn.com/news/cnnmoney-investigates/nra-funding-donors/index.html

        http://thehill.com/business-a-lobbying/business-a-lobbying/354317-the-nras-power-by-the-numbers

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  2. I note that Brett’s reply ignores my challenge of his polling crews. Rather, Brett comes to the defense of the NRA. But Brett’s history of the NRA leaves out the relationship of the NRA change from gun safely to its 2nd A absolutism to the civil rights movement that began with Brown v. Bd. of Educ. (Unanimous, 1954). This change in the NRA benefitted the gun industry. Despite Brett’s claim, the gun industry supported the NRA’s shift. By the way, on the subject of polling, Brett conveniently ignores polling of NRA members that indicates that many, many of its membership favor gun control laws that the NRA funds Republican Congressmen to oppose. The “We” in “We The People” of the Constitution goes well beyond the NRA’s current membership, all of whom are not bad people. As I noted in my reply to Brett, the NRA change was political, purely so, and timely with the civil rights movement as if the NRA were against the civil rights movement.

    And I note that Brett in his reply to me ignores the “history” of the 2nd A and its interpretation over the years through Heller (5-4, 2008). Of course Heller did not provide for 2nd A absolutism. In fact, the majority in Heller shot down the tyranny against government view that 2nd A absolutists claim. There are many limits on the 2nd A set forth in Heller. SCOTUS has to date since since 2008 not accommodated 2nd A absolutism, despite the NRA.

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    1. “But Brett’s history of the NRA leaves out the relationship of the NRA change from gun safely to its 2nd A absolutism to the civil rights”

      See, you’re demonstrating once again how gullible you are. The NRA never “changed from” gun safety, that’s still a major focus. It *added* 2nd amendment rights, because if it hadn’t, it would have eventually become just a historical society. But the NRA still runs most of the gun safety classes in the country.

      And, any pollster who tells you they’re polling NRA members is running a con on you, because the NRA doesn’t share its mailing list.

      Look at my first comment again, check out that link. Outside of right around one of the media’s moral hysterias, the number of people who rank gun control as important is in the low single digits to fractional percent. And NRA members are several percent of the voting public. That’s all you need to explain why gun control is political poison.

      You don’t need theories about why democracy is broken to explain the lack of success of the gun control movement. Gun control is the obsession of a tiny fraction of the population, who think themselves common because they live in a bubble generated by their being concentrated in media and academia.

      If gun control were remotely as popular as you’d like to think, all the NRA’s efforts would amount to spitting into a hurricane.

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      1. Brett, you’re pole dancing again. The NRA’s political contributions to Republicans says it all. You, Brett, have been “locked and loaded” since the civil rights movement. But your ammunition is spent. By the way, Brett, you in practice are neither an originalist nor a textualist, with your 2nd A absolutism.

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