Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Big Picture

Last month, a number of progressives were furious at Senator Harry Reid (D-Still Searchlight) for leaving the Assault Weapons Ban out of his initial gun safety bill. Many were asking why Senator Reid would "pre-compromise" and water down the bill so quickly. Yesterday, they got their answer when Senator Dean Heller (R-46%) announced not just his intention to vote against Senator Reid's bill, but even the Manchin-Toomey Amendment that would further weaken the bill by limiting its provision on expanding background checks for gun purchases.

Earlier today, Senator Reid delivered a powerful speech on gun safety reform on the Senate floor. He expressed sorrow over the likely demise of his bill. He mourned the lives recently lost to gun violence. And he even made a shocking surprise announcement.

Reid —a moderate Democrat who has a ‘B’ rating from the National Rifle Association —tore into conspiracy theorists who use “shameful scare tactics” to claim that requiring more gun buyers to undergo screenings would lead to the creation of a national gun registry. He argued that the amendment offered by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) specifically outlaws a registry “on page 27″ and would strengthen existing prohibitions against federal officials who store the names of gun owners.

“The courage today is to say yes,” Reid said, as he called on his fellow senators to vote their conscience:

"Today our decision will determine the decision of our country. Today I choose to vote my conscience, not only is Harry Reid a United States senator but also a a husband, a father, a grandfather and I hope friend of lots and lots of people, I choose to vote my conscience because, if tragedy strikes again, I’m sorry to say, Mr. President, it will, if innocents are gunned down in a classroom, theater or restaurant, I would have trouble living with myself as a senator, as a husband, a fathers, or grandfather and friend, knowing that I didn’t do everything in my power to prevent that incident." [...]

Reid also announced his support for Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) assault weapons bill, noting that “maintaining law and order is more important than satisfying the conspiracy theorists who believe in black helicopters and false flags.” He made a similar case for Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s (D-CT) high capacity magazine amendment and pointed out that hunters don’t need 30 rounds, as they are already limited in how they can target animals. “Don’t people deserve as much protection as birds?” he asked.

Earlier today, Manchin told reporters that his background check amendment is unlikely to attract the 60 votes it needs for passage and accused the National Rifle Association of spreading misinformation.

The last time the Assault Weapons Ban had a vote on the Senate floor (in 2004), Senator Reid opposed it. He also opposed the original version in the 1994 Crime Bill. So today marks a major change of heart for Senator Reid.

And yes, that's what it is. I've already been seeing accusations of this being some cold, calculated game of charades. Sorry, but I must call bullshit on that.

And I must explain why. Senator Reid has faced harrowing incidents of gun violence in his own life. Yet because of his family's and Nevada's overall storied gun culture, it's been difficult for him to break too far from the NRA.

That began to change in recent months. Senator Reid hasn't forgotten the NRA's refusal to endorse him in 2010. He's witnessed their bizarre, outlandish, and increasingly belligerent reactions to calls for even modest gun safety reform measures. And perhaps most notably, he's been bearing the brunt of their scorched earth campaign to kill a compromise of a compromise. And today, he's witnessing the innocent victims of the Newtown massacre watch in horror & disgust as Congress looks increasingly set to follow the NRA's marching orders & kill this compromise of a compromise.

The “gun rights” forces like to make several arguments about the involvement of the families in this drama. Some like to say it constitutes “emotional bullying” or “using the families” when gun control advocates cite their desires. Rand Paul today accused the Obama administration of using the Newtown families as “props.”

The problem with this, of course, is that these families are doing all of this of their own accord, and if they want to channel their grief into lobbying for gun reform, that’s their right. As for those gun control advocates who cite the family’s desires, the families share the same policy goal as they do,so why shouldn’t they?

Others like to say that the Manchin-Toomey proposal “wouldn’t have done anything to stop Newtown.” But that elides the obvious point that the families are lobbying on this issue because they are hoping to prevent other shootings of innocent people later,in hopes of sparing other families from getting torn apart they way their families have. “I’m not just here for the 26 that died at Sandy Hook,” Nicole Hockley said recently. “If we can make any steps forward to help save lives, then it’s a step worth taking.”

Many Senators stood and applauded when Obama, during his State of the Union Speech, intoned again and again that the Newtown families “deserve a vote.” But it’s not emotional manipulation to refer back to that moment; the families are actually in the Capitol asking for a simple majority vote. They could have gotten one. Senators who will vote No today had the option of voting Yes on the Toomey-Manchin amendment, which requires 60 votes, and then voting No during the simple majority vote on the final package of proposals. These Senators could have justified this by saying they believe Toomey-Manchin deserved a straight up or down vote and shouldn’t be killed by a supermajority requirement.

But these Senators apparently don’t believe this. We’re now learning that a number of them —red state Democrats and purple state Republicans alike —who genuinely seemed undecided on the proposal can’t bring themselves to allow such an up or down vote on it. As the families themselves will witness in person today, a simple majority vote in the United States Senate on expanding background checks —which is supported by over eight in 10 Americans –is apparently not going to happen.

I wholeheartedly believe all of this has been weighing on Senator Harry Reid. And as a result, Reid himself has had a dramatic change of heart on gun safety reform. And Senator Reid may not be alone.

That was Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) expressing shock and horror over his amendment, one that's meant to weaken Senator Reid's background checks provision and essentially written by other gun industry lobbyists, suddenly being put to death in the Senate. How could something as milquetoast and broadly accepted as his amendments go down in flames like this?

Earlier today, Joan Walsh noted just how much of a milestone today has been.

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin had an A rating from the NRA, winning the endorsement of its PAC for his staunch defense of gun rights (and opposition to even sensible gun regulations.) He made national headlines during his 2010 campaign with an ad that featured him shooting a copy of a cap and trade bill with a rifle, proving with one unforgettable image that he loved guns and hated energy regulation.

So it was big news when he decided to hook up with Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey on compromise gun control legislation expanding background checks and closing the so-called gun-show loophole. When Manchin announced that he was working on such measures, the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent said it represented “real movement in the right direction” and might even “give cover to all of the other red state Democrats who are skittish about embracing this common sense step.” Sargent was also encouraged that the NRA darling said he was discussing the measures with the NRA.

But two months later,with a vote on the Manchin-Toomey measures set for Wednesday afternoon, the senator’s work is expected to end in defeat. He admitted as much to NBC News today, and on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” he even accused his former political patrons, the NRA, of lying about his legislation. The NRA is claiming that the amendment would “criminalize the private transfer of firearms by private citizens,” Manchin noted, complaining “It is a lie.” The senator pointed out that his measure exempts sales between private individuals from the screening requirement. [...]

[NRA Chief Agent Provocateur Wayne] LaPierre’s seemingly crazy no-compromise strategy actually worked. As Zeff argues: “By effectively shifting the conversation far to the right, he also shifted rightward what constituted a ‘compromise’ in the gun discussion.” Meanwhile, Zeff notes, many gun control advocates abandoned Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s assault weapons ban proposal, which probably never could have been passed, but could have served as a countervailing force to pulling the “compromise” on guns so far to the right. Liberals, by the way, never seem to think that way, preferring to seem “reasonable” from the get-go and to negotiate with themselves.

Still, to look on the bright side, aside from a few stalwarts like the Brady Campaign, the pro-gun control forces had mostly surrendered over the last 10 years. Inspired by Newtown, they engaged with new fervor, and powerful new allies, like deep-pockets Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Tucson massacre survivor Gabby Giffords. Manchin’s “education” by his former NRA friends is the kind of life experience that might bring change. He once believed he was allying with a gun-owners’ lobby; he’s now discovered he was flacking for the gun-manufacturers’ lobby. This experience could change Manchin and other NRA supporters.

Actually, I think it already is. In witnessing both the extreme positions of the NRA and the extreme level of juice the NRA enjoys on Capitol Hill, it's forced many to rethink their loyalty to an organization dedicated to maximizing gun manufacturer's profits at the expense of many Americans' lives. Again, I believe that's what's led to Senator Reid's change of heart. And perhaps there's hope of Senator Manchin and others following along soon.

What's happening in Congress today is simply disgusting. Even with at least some gun safety reform measures attracting majority support, everything may ultimately be filibustered to death anyway. The only "victory" gun safety activists may see this week may be in watching the NRA's lurid poison pill amendments to the bill get filibustered to death as well.

This week may be full of heartbreaking defeat... But it may also be the start of real, positive change. Don't lose sight of the big picture.

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