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The Gun-Vote Backlash Has Only Just Begun

Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

As the Boston area was gripped by the manhunt that followed the Marathon bombings late last week, the opinion pages of the Concord Monitor just up the road in New Hampshire were consumed with another subject: Senator Kelly Ayotte’s vote against legislation to expand background checks for gun purchases. The paper’s lead editorial Sunday decried Ayotte’s rationale for opposing the bill as “utter nonsense” and an “abomination.” The letters to the editor section is riddled with anti-Ayotte broadsides, the tenor of which are conveyed by their headlines: “Ayotte’s vote should propel her out of office.” “Beyond disappointed.” “Ayotte did not represent her New Hampshire constituents.” “Enabler of murderers.” “Ayotte’s ‘courage.’” “Craven pandering.” “Reckless vote.” “Illogical vote.”

If gun control advocates are going to have any chance of resurrecting reforms after last week’s crushing defeat, much is going to depend on the depth of the initial backlash against the Democratic or swing-state Republican senators who opted to vote with the gun lobby. In a piece the day after the vote, I lamented that some leading liberals and mainstream media types were so willing to chalk the vote up to the predictable dynamics of the gun control issue, thereby essentially letting the senators who cast the crucial votes against the legislation off the hook for their decisions. One major columnist avoided holding accountable the senators who took the actual votes by wishing that President Barack Obama had acted more like a president in a movie.

But there are signs that the reaction against the vote will be stronger than what has followed prior setbacks for the cause. First, of course, there was the angry cri de coeur from Gabby Giffords. On Friday came spontaneous protests around the country at district offices of senators who voted no. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has set up a number for people to text so they can be patched through to the office of a senator who went the other way. “In years past when we lost on a vote, we had to generate [reaction], we had to push people,” says Brian Malte, the group’s director of mobilization. “This time it’s just directing it to the right place. It’s ‘I’m so angry, what should I do?’”

Perhaps the most surprising outburst came from Bill Daley, the former Clinton commerce secretary, JP Morgan Chase executive and Obama chief of staff. Daley, son and brother of the Chicago mayors of the same name, is no one’s idea of a conscience liberal—in fact, he was a leading voice during the past two decades for making the Democratic Party more welcoming to centrist types, be they pro-business moderates like himself or red-state working-class voters who, yes, cling to their guns. But there he was in Sunday’s Washington Post excoriating the four Senate Democrats who voted against the background-check legislation, particularly Heidi Heitkamp, the newly elected North Dakotan who does not face voters again for another five years:

I want my money back. Last October, I gave $2,500 to support Heidi Heitkamp’s campaign to become North Dakota’s junior senator. A few weeks later, she won a surprise victory. But this week, Heitkamp betrayed those hopes. She voted to block legislation to make gun background checks more comprehensive. Her vote — along with those of 41 Republicans and three other Democrats — was a key reason the measure fell short of the 60 votes needed for passage.

Polling has shown that nine in 10 Americans and eight in 10 gun owners support a law to require every buyer to go through a background check on every gun sale. In North Dakota, the support was even higher: 94 percent. Yet in explaining her vote, Heitkamp had the gall to say that she “heard overwhelmingly from the people of North Dakota” and had to listen to them and vote no. It seems more likely that she heard from the gun lobby and chose to listen to it instead.

Daley is just one person, but this seems pretty significant to me, as a sort of signal to establishment Democrats nationwide. For so long, party poo-bahs have cosseted Democrats from red or purple districts on issues such as gun control—heck, Daley’s fellow Chicagoan Rahm Emanuel deliberately picked pro-gun candidates to run for the House in 2006. Some liberals still seem inclined to cut the Gang of Feckless Four a lot of slack. But here is Daley turning the frame on its head—instead of making excuses for Heitkamp et al, he praised the Democrats running for reelection in tough states who did for the legislation, Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and North Carolina’s Kay Hagan. They, not Heitkamp and the other three no’s (Max Baucus, Mark Begich and Mark Pryor) will be getting his money from now on, he said.

On the Republican side, the accountability will be left up to the voters in swing states like New Hampshire or Ohio, where Rob Portman also voted against the legislation (after letting it be known that he couldn’t cross party lines on guns after having already done so on gay marriage). It is not at all hard to envision a Democrat running against Kelly Ayotte on a law-and-order-line—here she was, a former attorney general, voting to leave a huge loophole in our system for making sure that felons are unable to purchase guns.

Of course, it won’t be easy. Ayotte, for one, is not even up for reelection until 2016, allowing plenty of time for the memory of her vote to recede in voters’ minds. As political scientists note, the unique circumstances of the gun debate still plays to the advantage of the NRA. But as my colleague Nate Cohn argues, the NRA’s sway has been overstated for some time now—the fact is, not a few senators have managed to survive in purple or red states despite consistently voting against the gun lobby. Last week’s setback was a sign that some senators were not yet willing to embrace that reality, and by doing so, they of course further enshrined facile assumptions of NRA prowess.

But their votes do seem to have produced a visceral reaction unlike any we’ve seen for some time on this front. And rightly so. It would take a jaded soul indeed to feel nothing on reading, say, of the scene Wednesday night in the Oval Office when some of the families who lost children in the Newtown massacre learned that 45 senators had not seen it in them to vote for even the most measured, limited reform: “Mr. Obama hugged the brother of one victim, Daniel Barden, who was 7, and told him to take care of his mother, who was sobbing quietly.”

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis