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Alaska Editorial: Undeserved abuse: Sen. Begich beaten up for independent vote

Posted: May 6, 2013 - 12:06am

This editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

Alaska Sen. Mark Begich has been trashed in the most vicious way during the past week for his vote against expanding background checks on gun purchases. Agree or disagree with his vote, he doesn’t deserve the abuse.

The ugly accusation is that Sen. Begich voted against the expanded checks for purely political reasons, to boost his prospects of surviving the 2014 election as a Democrat in a state that leans Republican. His most vociferous critics, mostly fellow Democrats, seem to believe that no rational person could oppose the proposed background check legislation because they themselves, as avowedly rational people, do not.

When Sen. Begich, the most prominent elected Democrat in Alaska, expressed such opposition, the self-righteous outrage at the betrayal blinded critics to any explanation beyond the most base: The senator is a coward pandering to paranoid Neanderthals and a greedy gun lobby.

Please. Give the senator’s skull credit for hosting a brain, not a weathervane. And what happened to all the voices encouraging independent, nonpartisan thinkers?

Arguments can be made against the wisdom of expanding background checks. The same can be found in favor of greater checks. Rational people fall to each side. Our values, experiences and thought processes cause us to reach different conclusions when we balance our perceptions of the crime-deterring efficacy of such checks against our perceptions of the hassles the checks would create for law-abiding people.

Sen. Begich, as he completed this balancing in his own mind, quite plausibly could have found himself personally opposed to expanded checks. In fact, that’s the most likely explanation of his vote. One assertion from his critics illustrates why.

The assertion is that about 90 percent of Americans support expanded background checks, so Sen. Begich betrayed the country, and likely his own constituents, with his vote. There are good reasons to question the accuracy of the 90 percent figure, and it’s not clear what the numbers are in Alaska. However, it wouldn’t be surprising to find a majority of Alaskans also support expanded background checks.

So, if Sen. Begich’s vote contradicted those desires, how could it help his re-election? How could he be pandering? It seems unlikely, at first blush.

Students of political science might make the more nuanced argument that the senator still might be pandering because expanding gun control is a highly salient issue to its opponents — meaning it influences their voting greatly. So even if a majority of Alaskans supports more background checks, the senator might have been politically wise to vote against the legislation, given that there is a very motivated minority that opposes such checks.

On the other hand, that minority is likely to vote Republican in the general election, regardless. So again, what’s the advantage to Sen. Begich of alienating his liberal base on the unlikely chance that he’ll lure substantial numbers from the conservative base?

The political analysis brings us to the land of “maybe.” Maybe the vote will help the senator’s re-election. Maybe it won’t. It’s not clear.

Sen. Begich cast a vote that he knew would receive a lot of attention and that he would need to defend before his core constituency with solid, rational arguments. Some of us will find his arguments convincing, others will not. Let’s focus on the arguments, and leave the name-calling behind.

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