After Newtown, and after the election of 2012, the political environment has changed. It seemed possible, for the first time in 20 years, that some reasonable restrictions on the use of firearms might pass Congress.
So it was a shock when the Senate refused to do anything, killing the Manchin-Toomey compromise on background checks when it received a majority, but failed to get enough votes to overcome the inevitable filibuster – itself a misuse of the process by which legislation should proceed.
It probably shouldn’t have been a shock, given the dismal state of Congress, but it was. If something 90 percent of the public supports, vetted by a Democratic senator from a “red” state and a Republican senator from a “blue” state, can’t pass, what can?
Once again, the NRA exerted its hammerlock over nearly all Republicans and a few Democrats. If you can’t prevail on the facts, raise the volume – it’s worked for the gun lobby before, and did again. But the victory, this time, could be Pyrrhic.
The post-mortems have tried to make the utterly irrational – opposing legislation with an overwhelming national consensus behind it – into something understandable. These analyses suggest that President Obama didn’t twist enough arms, or that the four Democratic senators who voted against the bipartisan agreement negotiated by Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) were somehow responsible.
Sorry. That’s not what happened.
When the bill overcame a filibuster to open debate, 68 senators were on board. The measure that came out of committee was a party-line proceeding, but Manchin-Toomey addressed that. It met Republican concerns in two key ways. It made it even clearer that background checks cannot lead to a gun registry, and raised penalties against such use to 15 years in prison. It then exempted family transfers of guns, focusing only on sales made at gun shows or other commercial settings.
There was no reasonable cause to reject the amendment, but 41 Republicans voted against it anyway; only four, including Maine’s Sen. Susan Collins, supported it. One of our newest senators, former Maine Gov. Angus King, walked away shaking his head, saying he had “yet to hear or dream up any rational reason,” for opposing it, later calling the vote “unconscionable.”
Using the scorecard approach, Joe Manchin brought along 51 of the 55 members of his caucus. Pat Toomey persuaded four of 45 Republicans – not really comparable results.
And Obama? Gun control was nowhere among his re-election talking points, but after the Newtown massacre he dug into the issue and did everything that could reasonably be expected.
Those against the amendment, including Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) continued to make the same nonsensical arguments, reading from the NRA script almost literally.
The first argument is that background checks are useless because criminals will get guns anyway. This is the ultimate in cynicism, like arguing that laws against criminal homicide are pointless, because, after all, people commit murder anyway.
The second is that we don’t need more laws; what we need is for the government to enforce laws we do have. The NRA never, of course, tells us what law is supposedly unenforced.
On background checks, the need for new legislation is hardly open to question. The gun show and Craigslist loophole are so gaping that, yes, 90 percent of the public understands the need for change.
So, business as usual? Perhaps not. The Republican Party, driven ever further right by its tea party faction, is on the wrong side of just about every important issue we face, from income tax rates for the wealthy and immigration to military intervention abroad. It’s the same on a host of social issues, including abortion and marriage equality. To that list, we can now add guns.
The NRA, which once favored background checks and established itself as a national organization when it campaigned against machine guns, way back in the 1930s, now believes there’s no regulation on guns, or gun ownership, of any kind, that can pass constitutional muster. It argues for an absolutist position on the Second Amendment that is contrary to every instinct we have for getting along in a democratic society. Absolutist positions sometimes “work” for a particular election or legislative vote, but they ultimately backfire.
Obama called it correctly when he said that, in 2014, people will have to consider again if they’re getting the representation they want. It may be that 2012 wasn’t the president’s last campaign after all.
Politicians who worry more about the extremists than they do about their constituents are eventually sent a message from the voters that they can’t ignore.
Douglas Rooks is a former daily and weekly newspaper editor who has covered the State House for 28 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.