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How the Senate Killed Gun Control, In One Map

Memo Pad Politics

How the Senate Killed Gun Control, In One Map


by Benjamin Landy, @Ben_Landy

Policy Associate, The Century Foundation, @tcfdotorg

Despite broad support from the American public, the bipartisan Manchin-Toomey amendment to extend background checks died in the Senate, six ‘ayes’ short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster. But party divisions were only one reason why the gun vote failed. More important was the institutional structure of the Senate itself, which by its very design (two senators per state) gives disproportionate representation and political power to small populations in large, rural states.

If you re-adjust the map of the United States to reflect states’ actual populations, it becomes clearer that gun control legislation was defeated not only by a minority of senators, but also by an undemocratic minority of Americans.


“Of the senators from the 25 largest states, the Manchin-Toomey legislation received 33 aye votes and 17 nay votes — an almost 2:1 margin,” notes Wonkblog‘s Ezra Klein. “But of the senators from the 25 smallest states, it received only 21 aye votes and 29 nay votes.”

It’s typical to say that this is how the Senate’s always been. It’s also wrong. The filibuster didn’t emerge until decades after the first Congress, and its constant use is a thoroughly modern development.

As for the small state bias, that, too, has changed over time. During the first Congress, Virginia, the largest state, was roughly 12 times the size of Delaware, which was, at the time, the smallest state. Today, California is 66 times the size of Wyoming. That makes the Senate five times less proportionate today than it was at the founding.

Jonathan Cohn and Eric Kingsbury, writing at the New Republicwere also struck by how little the Senate vote reflected public polling, which in previous weeks showed that as many as 90 percent of Americans support background checks:

If you assume, for sake of argument, each senator represents half of his or her state’s population, then senators voting for the bill represented about 194 million people, while the senators voting against the bill represented about 118 million people. That’s getting close to a two-thirds majority in favor of the measure.

In a legislative body that didn’t give sparsely populated rural states the same representation as densely populated urban ones—and in which a minority of representatives lacked the power to block debate indefinitely—those kinds of numbers would be more than enough to pass something like the background check proposal.

This sort of political calculus is complicated, of course, by the influence of the National Rifle Association, which spent about $7.5 million on outside campaign spending during the 2012 election cycle — 99.6 percent of which went towards either supporting Republican candidates or defeating Democrats. That’s in addition to the $3 million the NRA paid to flood Congress with gun rights lobbyists.

Unfortunately, money is speech in Washington as elsewhere in the United States, and the NRA is a particularly loud voice — despite representing only about one percent of Americans. For many of the senators facing tough re-election campaigns in 2014, that alone was enough.


  1. Lynda Groom April 19, 2013

    Looks like the parts of the country where the people live the votes were Yes…elsewhere not so much.

  2. TZToronto April 19, 2013

    It would have been good if the nay voters had had to actually filibuster, standing up and speaking so that the country could see and hear the defenders of murder justify their stands. Instead, they managed to escape without having to embarrass themselves. What a bunch of cowards!

  3. Daniel Jones April 19, 2013

    My country, over thee
    Congress will force to be

    Land of abandoned pride,
    cheap guns, and homicide,
    from every alleyside,
    let gunfire ring!

  4. Charles___Darwin April 19, 2013

    Rightfully so. Democrats and jihadists have something in common’ the both want to destroy America.. These guys were just different versions of William Ayers

    1. charleo1 April 19, 2013

      Rightfully so? Charles, that is one ridiculous statement, looking back
      over the last decade. I guess Bush, and Co. didn’t want to destroy America.
      It was just one big accident, after the next, after the next, right? First, they let
      the terrorists completely blind side us, on 9/11. Attacked a Country that had
      nothing to do with 9/11. Spend two trillion dollars installing a friendly government
      next door to America’s arch enemy Iran. But, shit happens. Unlike Democrats,
      George didn’t want to, wasn’t trying to, destroy America, Right? Well, we
      can thank heavens Bush put his MBA from Yale to good use, and left us a
      booming economy, to take care of the tab he left without paying. Right?

      1. Charles___Darwin April 19, 2013

        Charleo, how have you been? We haven’t spoke since the herald days. You were one of the few on “the other side’ I enjoyed reading. You always make valid points, some of which I can’t refute.

    2. jmprint April 20, 2013

      The republican and Al Quaida are no different, they both follow cult teachings and get brain washed. They repeat the same jargon and believe it. The republicans are destroying this world. Everyone damn one of them are followers.

      1. Charles___Darwin April 20, 2013

        Ironic how you are repeating your ridiculous lefty mantra. The dems have the welfare and criminal vote wrapped up. I’m sure your brethren terrorists in boston aren’t Republicans, lol.

  5. Lovefacts April 20, 2013

    Well, at least we know which states and Senators to target when relection comes up. I believe that the election can be won by being true to your beliefs and telling it like it is–the nays were more afraid of the NRA and getting re-elected than doing the right thing for American citizens. Yes, people have a right to a gun. But their freedom stops at trying to kill me. Our being safe in school or public places should be more important than gun manufacturers and their profits.

  6. Lovefacts April 20, 2013

    I am so tired of the hate-filled rhetoric. People who are crazy or ideologues will commit terror regardless of their nationality or citizenship. Timothy McVeigh was born and raised an American as was JFK’s assassin and Reagan’s would be assassin. As for the marathon bombers, they’d lived in the states for over 10 years as legal residents and one of them had become a citizen. Crazy is crazy and an ideologue is an ideologue. They hide in plain sight.

    1. july860 April 20, 2013

      I agree-they could be any one of us. They do hide in plain sight.

  7. Allan Richardson April 20, 2013

    Maybe the “blue” large states could take a strategic page from Stalin’s action when the UN was being formed. He could have consolidated the Iron Curtain states into a Greater Soviet Union, but he didn’t. Why? Because each COUNTRY has one vote in the General Assembly. So he put puppet regimes into a dozen “independent” countries and got a dozen more votes that HE controlled.

    Now, HIS reasons for doing so were obviously EVIL, but the same STRATEGY could be used for GOOD and DEMOCRATIC ideals. Ask the voters in some of the “blue” states to split their states up: Redwood, Goldgate and Hollywood; Gotham and Catskill; Gulfshore, Eyefor (I-4) and Baja Florida (better yet, combine the west half of Gulfshore with Alabama and the east half with Georgia). And after getting control of Congress back, force some of the “red” states with low populations to merge: Arizah, Colyoming, Montaho, a single Dakota, Kanbraska, Texahoma.

    Of course I am speaking tongue in cheek, but there is a really big problem here. Yes, the founders set up the Senate that way for a reason, but they were faced with a much lower discrepancy (12 to 1) than they could have anticipated in the future (66 to 1). And they were forging a new nation out of SEPARATE COUNTRIES which already had existing populations (and would have had MORE discrepancies if the 3/5 rule had not counted 60 percent of the slaves who were NOT allowed to vote, as “votes”). And ironically, in THOSE original states there is LESS discrepancy now than there was then (partially because, since 1865, 100 PERCENT of those former slaves’ descendants are counted, and ARE legally entitled to vote, though state legislatures still try to discourage them from doing so).

    But the population skew is also there for a reason. The 19th century Congresses, rather than drawing new state boundaries to encompass roughly equal POPULATIONS, drew them to encompass roughly equal AREAS (larger than the older states). And two of those western states forced Congress to draw the lines that THEY wanted (one red state, Texas, and one blue state, California), although they have enough population density to justify their size with people.

    But then, during the 20th century, people began to move out of the rural, conservative areas in all states and into cities. And toward the end of the 20th century, population migrated to the southern states, but preferentially the affluent migrated out of cities into the suburbs and rural areas (those who either did not need jobs, had suburban office jobs, or had small businesses that could be moved with them), and the less affluent, along with more academic minded students and teachers,remained in or moved to the cities and college towns.

    So the REASONS for the discrepancy were good in 1788, but in 2013 democracy is in trouble. It would be worse if Senators were still chosen by state legislatures as they were before the 17th Amendment, since those legislatures (which apportion the House delegations) are even MORE biased toward the rural conservatives. So not surprisingly some conservatives want to REPEAL the 17th Amendment!

    The filibuster should be cut back so that it can only DELAY votes for a specific maximum time limit, and only applies to VOTES on LEGISLATION, not to starting debate or confirming appointees (and abolish the one-member secret hold). And require an old fashioned talking filibuster when it does reply.

    1. july860 April 20, 2013

      I like the old-fashioned talking filibuster idea. It would require actual thought and some kind of eloquence from the speaker….

  8. charleo1 April 20, 2013

    Chuck Grassley asks, How do we ensure the people who wish to do us
    harm, are not eligible for benefits, under the immigration law? Well Chuck,
    I guess we’ll just need to ask them. And take their word for it. Or invent a
    mind reading machine. Someone on his staff should ask him if he knows
    where he’s at. And watch him, so he don’t get out in the street, and get
    run over. Poor thing.


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