Guns & Roses: Washington DC’s ‘pretty shameful day’

By J Brooks Spector 19 April 2013

On Wednesday, the US Senate refused to pass any element of a bipartisan plan that would have expanded the writ of criminal background checks, banned assault weapons and outlawed high-capacity magazines. At least for the present, this has dealt a body blow to the Obama administration’s campaign to pass legislation that could help curb gun violence. After the votes, Barack Obama, in remarks that were in contrast to his usual “no drama Obama” demeanour, the president called the resulting legislative non-action “a pretty shameful day for Washington”. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

The response from many quarters was dismay or anger. In response to this result, liberal editor, columnist and commentator Adrianna Huffington acridly commented on Facebook, “Apparently, number of kids who need to die for gun control to pass is more than number of kids killed at Newton.”

But as is often true in Washington’s legislative universe, the reality of this defeat evolved out of a convoluted set of circumstances. In fact, most of these bi-partisan measures that came up for voting on Wednesday were not actually defeated. Rather, they failed to obtain the required 60 of 100 votes needed to pass an “important” measure. The membership of the US Senate consists of two senators for each state – 50 states equals 100 senators – rather than being apportioned by population.

Ultimately, President Obama’s ambitious, politically potent yet risky effort to overhaul the nation’s gun laws, in response to the Connecticut school massacre last December, received a resounding defeat. Every major proposal he had championed came unstuck as it reached the Senate floor for its respective vote. But beyond being a slap at the president and his newly energised approach on gun control, it was also a stark defeat for gun control advocates nationally.

And this had come just four months after those baleful Newtown deaths that seemingly had convinced the president and so many others that the American political landscape on weapons regulation had – finally – shifted in their favour, and that the National Rifle Association’s influence had – finally – been worn down. In fact, the push for this legislation that might have made it harder for mass shootings to occur in the future came undone in response to withering attacks from the gun rights lobby, most especially the NRA, that adroitly played on regional and cultural differences among the senators.

And so, the Senate votes blocked or defeated proposals that would have banned sales of certain military-style assault rifles and limited the size of ammunition magazines. But the worst shock came when the Senate would not pass a measure that would have expanded and made more comprehensive the need for criminal background checks for gun sales. While many sales already require such checks, private sales such as those at popular gun shows do not require such checks – and the mechanisms and databases for such checks are still far less than comprehensive. When the time came, the senators cast their votes and the results defied recent opinion polls that show 90% of Americans actually support this idea. 

As the Washington Post’s Dan Balz explained after the votes were cast, “More significant, perhaps, in a polarised country, is that the idea of expanded background checks received overwhelming support across the political spectrum. Nine in 10 Democrats, more than eight in 10 Republicans and independents, and almost nine in 10 Americans who live in households with guns backed the proposal, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. Nearly all of them said they ‘strongly’ favoured the plan. In the ways of Washington, that still wasn’t enough. ‘If you ever wanted a textbook example of intensity trumping preference, this is it,’ said Ross K Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. ‘You could have 100% of those polled saying they wanted universal background checks and it would still be defeated. You can’t translate poll results into public policy’.”

“All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington,” said Barack Obama in his response. In giving this speech, Obama had surrounded himself with the Newtown families, a visibly scowling vice president, and former Arizona Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Giffords had herself been grievously injured in Tucson, Arizona in 2011 by a gunman. She had walked from the White House’s Oval Office, still limping from the lingering effects of her injuries, out to the Rose Garden in order to join Obama for his remarks.

Obama sounded clearly exasperated that the Senate had not been more responsive to public opinion and had not offered what he felt were appropriate rationales for why it had failed to vote for the measures. In particular, Obama spoke out against the National Rifle Association having “wilfully lied” about the background-check proposal in order to engender fears among gun rights supporters that Congress would violate their Second Amendment rights (“A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”) or create some sort of a federal gun registry. And he put the blame for all of this right at the feet of Republicans. Obama said, “Ninety percent of Democrats in the Senate voted for that idea, but it’s not going to happen because 90% of Republicans just voted against it… [and that they] had “caved to the pressure”.

However, Obama insisted these votes were just the first round and he pledged to do everything he could to take further action on these measures. “We can do more if Congress gets its act together,” Obama said. “And if this Congress refuses to listen to the American people and enact common-sense gun legislation, then the real impact is going to have to come from the voters.” The next election comes round in 2014.

Despite this harsh defeat on an issue that has starkly divided the country for years, the push for some gun control measures will almost certainly continue. But if Congress finally does pass any kind of legislation, it will almost certainly be more modest than the already limited measures Obama had urged be passed. And although the president had originally not pushed hard for gun control legislation in his first term, the slaughter in Newtown conspired to put gun control on top of his second-term agenda and he had expended real political capital in backing the proposals.

But once the defeats came in, some White House officials privately were expressing their frustrations the president and vice president had elected to lobby for the measures through campaign-style public events rather than via the tough congressional bargaining for the votes with each senator and the horse-trading that would have gone with that approach. The anonymous critics were clearly implying that the two senior politicians had thought pressure from voters supporting the measures and the emotional impact of people who had lost loved ones from gun violence would have been enough to carry the day. But it was not. 

Ultimately, Obama was unable to convert popular support for such measures into actual legislative achievement. Although Obama’s Democratic Party holds a slender majority in the Senate, because of the decentralised nature of American political parties, party leadership is unable to enforce strict party-line voting in the US, save for the initial voting that comes after each election so as to elect officers like majority and minority leaders. In any case, the 53 members usually voting as or with the Democrats would still have been insufficient to ensure passage of any of these measures, without significant support from Republicans.

Still, until a few days ago, those strengthened mandatory background checks for all gun buyers, long considered the most politically palatable of Obama’s proposals, were seen as the most politically palatable of all the measures and seemed poised for passage after two usually reliably pro-gun senators, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III and Pennsylvania Republican Patrick Toomey, had announced their compromise deal. 

But, despite that positive harbinger, and even after meetings between senators and Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School parents, the resulting pressure was still not enough to close the sale with several Democratic centrists and a group of moderate Republicans. They had ostensibly had been open to expanded background checks, but, in the end, many of them voted no, in response to pressures from anti-control forces. 

In response to its victory, National Rifle Association lobbyist Chris Cox said, “This amendment would have criminalised certain private transfers of firearms between honest citizens, requiring lifelong friends, neighbours and some family members to get federal government permission to exercise a fundamental right or face prosecution.” Opponents to the Manchin-Toomey amendment insisted it would have been the fatal first step to a national gun registry (and, sssh… enforced confiscation of everyone’s weapons by nasty federal agents) even though the actual words in the two senators’ amendment contained explicit wording that specifically outlawed a federal registry.

Opponents also said it would have been unable to prevent mass shootings but would have only been an imposition on law-abiding citizens in rural areas. Or as Republican Texas Senator Ted Cruz insisted, “My biggest concern with the legislation, the Democrat legislation on the floor, is it doesn’t address the problem. It doesn’t target violent criminals. Instead, what it does is, it targets law-abiding citizens.” And, of course, the NRA rallied its vociferous membership base to barrage senators with endless letters, e-mails, phone calls and face-to-face appearances (or confrontations) at town hall meetings. This was, in its view, one of those existential moments when it was all hands on deck.

The net effect was sufficient to convince enough wavering senators that voting for the measures would jeopardise their re-election prospects. In effect, they made the calculation that people truly committed to anti-gun control positions would vote out en masse in the next election and run incumbent senators out of office if they voted for any of these measures – and that, simultaneously, those committed to such legislation do not have the same singularity and intensity of political purpose. Of course most of us have always thought support for these measures would simply make it really, really hard for a crazy, violent criminal, desperate to buy an assault weapon and a truckload of ammunition, to be found out before he ended up with enough firepower to take over a small country.

In the Senate, the Wednesday votes showed insufficient Republican support for any of the proposals. Only four Republicans joined the vast majority of Democrats in a 54 to 46 vote for the Manchin-Toomey background-check proposal, but that still left the proposal six votes short of what was needed for passage. (Democratic Majority Leader Harry M Reid also voted no, but this was a parliamentary tactic designed to preserve his right to call for a subsequent vote on the amendment at any time in the future if circumstances change.)

As the other votes came along, only 40 senators supported the assault-weapons ban and 46 supported limiting the size of ammunition magazines. In addition, even an NRA-backed measure that clarified gun-trafficking laws fell two short of the magic number, stunning Democrats. More senators – 57 – voted for a provision that would have actually expanded gun rights — allowing people with permits to carry concealed weapons in their states to carry them nationwide — than supported expanding criminal background checks. Amazing.

The question now is whether proponents of the measures will, in the future, be able to channel and amplify their anger and energy to defeat those senators who voted nay on the proposals. As a start, former congresswoman Giffords emailed her supporters, “The US Senate decided to do the unthinkable about gun violence – nothing at all. It’s clear to me that if members of the US Senate refuse to change the laws to reduce gun violence, then we need to change the members of the US Senate.” 

Still, some gun control advocates have already begun the debate about whether it was really possible to mount this kind of popular and effective campaign, taking on a well-funded, well-entrenched lobby, just four months after the Newtown shootings. When the president went to Newtown in December to deliver his eulogy for the victims, he had promised to draw on “whatever power this office holds” to get the changes that could prevent gun violence passed into law. But some allies in this fight now complain he should have started this effort two years earlier, when congresswoman Giffords had been wounded. 

As Paul Helmke, the former head of the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence, said, “Post-Newtown, the president’s been wonderful, but if more of this had happened after the Giffords shooting, maybe we could’ve laid the groundwork then to get something passed now.” Helmke’s organisation is named after James Brady, the press secretary in the Reagan White House who was wounded together with Ronald Reagan during the attempt on that president’s life over a quarter of a century ago.

Before the votes, gun-control supporters had been in a positive headspace after Manchin and Toomey found agreement on a compromise measure. But the supporting vote began to flow the other way in the face of that concerted NRA campaign – and the deliberate misinformation about gun registration.

The real question going forward is more than if the president and gun control supporters can pick up three or four new supporters somehow while holding the supporters’ numbers intact from the raids by the anti-gun control forces. Rather, it is whether there will be sufficient popular revulsion to what has happened to ensure that at least some of the most vocal anti-gun control senators are defeated in 2014 – at least those whose six-year terms come up for re-election in that year. Unfortunately for the president’s side, however, incumbent Democrats who plan to run again, or are seats held by Democrats who have announced they are retiring represent a majority of the one third of the Senate seats up for re-election in 2014. As a result, at least as far as gun control is concerned, the electoral maths may well be a very difficult sell. 

Of course, the current situation also leaves open the dire possibility of yet another gun massacre – and the chance such a tragedy might finally generate enough revulsion to force a new vote in the Senate. But surely that would be a terrible price to have to pay – yet again – to finally get some sanity into the statute books. DM

Read more:

  • Why Newtown Wasn’t Enough – Gun control advocates won’t win until senators fear them as much as they fear the NRA at Slate
  • Every proposal on gun control fails in Senate at the Washington Post 
  • Senate Guns Down Background Checks at Time
  • Gun Control Effort Had No Real Chance, Despite Pleas at the New York Times 
  • Gun vote shows gulf between Washington, country, an analysis by Dan Balz in the Washington Post 
  • The Senate Fails Americans, New York Times editorial
  • Is the political fight on guns over? Or is it just beginning? A column by Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post
  • Obama: ‘This was a pretty shameful day for Washington’ in the Washington Post
  • Full transcript of Obama’s remarks in the Rose Garden after the votes
  • A Senate in the Gun Lobby’s Grip, a commentary by Gabrielle Giffords in the New York Times 

Photo: Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks next to Vice President Joe Biden on commonsense measures to reduce gun violence, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington April 17, 2013. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas 


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