John Havelock: Begich vote on background checks made sense

By JOHN HAVELOCKApril 25, 2013 

What did we want Mark Begich to do? His vote, either way, lacked practical effect. He voted against the President's gun purchaser registration act (as some would have it). Many Alaskans have subsequently received an email message from "Mayors Against Illegal Guns"and other organizations urging them to write letters to the newspaper expressing "shame" at Senator Begich's "cowardly" vote against proposed national legislation requiring background checks on gun purchasers. On the other side, fewer but famously powerful groups, notoriously the NRA, are relieved or maybe triumphant. How will all this play out at the ballot box in November, 2014?

Though Anchorage residents are rustic only on weekends, Alaska is a rural state. It is unlikely that Alaskan opinion matches the 90 percent measure of national support for this legislation. But, since a majority of NRA members favored this legislation notwithstanding the position of NRA leadership, a majority of Alaskans also probably supported the proposal, but quietly and without passion. In contrast, the sizable minority of Alaskans who opposed the legislation opposed it with gusto.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski had it easy because the Republican position has been with the NRA all along. So what was Senator Begich (who also has a staunch NRA record) to do? The writer has avoided the taint of contact with the senator's office. Official explanations are obfuscating. No doubt Begich preferred that the bill never come up at all.

Does the conscientious legislator always vote by opinion polls? One day he is condemned for just that, the next day damned for not voting constituents' preference. How important is the strength of constituent feeling? If 40 percent of the voters are strongly against and 60 percent mildly for it, do you give strong feeling extra weight?

How do the President's interests weigh in? Probably quite a bit if the Begich vote determines the fate of the legislation; not so much when he can't get to the magic number and the Alaskan senator's vote is symbolic only.

Besides thinking about all these pressures from home and more, a senator considers the advice of experts. Will this bill really make a difference in mass killings? Millions of weapons are around. It is not difficult for a disturbed individual to gain access. The Newtown nutcase was given his arsenal by an indulgent mother! Checking the dozens of gun killings that occurred today, few if any would have been stopped by a purchaser check. How does the Senator feel about this bill himself? The British philosopher Edmund Burke believed that the voters put a legislator in place to exercise his own informed judgment without regard to voter preferences. Voters, busy with the issues of daily work, couldn't be all that well informed anyway. But American politics, governed more by interest groups than individuals, are rarely Burkeian.

Sen. Begich has a clear picture of how this issue sits with Alaskans. It was a Democratic representative who pushed through a state bill blocking cities from banning the carrying of concealed weapons. The current state legislature passed a gangster protection act allowing gun-toting thugs to "stand their ground" in a shootout. No legislator would dream of introducing a state equivalent to the president's bill. The strong urban-rural opinion split on this legislation argues for state-by-state solutions, each state picking its own level of gun control.

Each of Alaska's delegates to Congress faces myriad issues that involve disappointing some constituents. No doubt Senator Begich will lose a few 2014 supporters on this vote. They could be deciding votes. Single-issue voting is political poison and irrelevant to this issue. Neither of Sen. Begich's probable opponents, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and Joe Miller are touched by any sense of ambiguity on guns. With Begich gone, Alaska will lack a voice in the White House for many years, looking at presidential election prospects highly favorable to the Democrat. We may hate the feds but financially it is a love-hate relationship. A split delegation works for Alaska. Senator Begich served Alaska well by voting the gun color of his state.

John Havelock is a former Alaska attorney general and former White House Fellow.

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