Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Disconnect

This can be very confusing. Sometimes, it seems like a deal is near on gun safety reform. Even former REPUBLICAN National Committee Chair Michael Steele said this morning on MSNBC that he doesn't understand why a few gun owners (prodded by the NRA) fear background checks and registration.

And on the US Senate floor yesterday, US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) vowed to press on for floor votes on a wide array of gun safety measures. And not only did Reid demand a floor vote on his own bill, but he even went as far to suggest that the Assault Weapons Ban deserves a floor vote as well (as an amendment). Perhaps all the G-O-TEA filibuster threats truly are getting to him. And unfortunately for Senate Republicans, it's happening the opposite effect of what they had desired. (No really, think about it.)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) had been planning to effectively give the NRA veto authority over any and all gun safety legislation. And he's willing to do so because he's currying the gun lobby's favor just in time for his own reelection campaign in 2014.

“Sen. McConnell opposes the Reid bill,” the minority leader’s spokesman, Don Stewart, told TPM. “While nobody knows yet what Sen. Reid’s plan is for the gun bill, if he chooses to file cloture on the motion to proceed to the Reid bill, Sen. McConnell will oppose cloture on proceeding to that bill.”

In other words, if a bipartisan deal is struck, McConnell may very well forgo the filibuster and possibly even vote for the final version. But his threat is weighty because he’s an extraordinarily clever strategist and has a proven track record of unifying Senate Republicans behind his will. And so his filibuster threat will likely force Democrats to win his approval for any passable bill.

Crucially, McConnell is up for reelection next year in bright-red Kentucky, and is carefully watching his right flank. That means he won’t dare get on the NRA’s bad side, but he could also be on the hook if any wayward Republicans decide to buck the party line and join Democrats on a bill the powerful gun industry lobby dislikes. In other words, McConnell seems to have taken it upon himself to make sure any new gun legislation will be NRA-compliant.

On that score, lawmakers have an escape hatch to say they support background checks without actually doing anything doing anything to make it harder for people to avoid them when buying a firearm at gun shows or in private sales. The NRA supports enhancing mental health reporting in existing background check systems, a policy that some pro-gun senators back and point to as evidence that they support background checks

And here's the most depressing story from yesterday. While the Senate was debating whether to even allow for votes on gun violence prevention bills, a 4 year old child shot a 6 year old child in New Jersey. No really, that happened.

Authorities are deciding whether to charge anyone after police say a 6-year-old was shot in the head by a 4-year-old in New Jersey.

The older boy is in serious condition.

Authorities are still investigating how the younger child obtained the .22-caliber rifle from his family’s Toms River home Monday night.

Police Chief Michael Mastronardy says the children were outside the 4-year-old’s home when the boy went inside, got the rifle and shot the 6-year-old about 15 yards away. It’s not clear if the 4-year-old pulled the trigger or if the rifle accidentally discharged.

The parents of the 4-year-old were home at the time.

Yes, this actually happened while Congress was wrestling over gun violence yesterday. What also happened yesterday was this.

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In context, [President Obama] was noting the overwhelming public support for support universal background checks -- "How often do 90 percent of Americans agree on anything?" Obama said to laughter -- and the fact that public opinion on the issue crosses partisan boundaries. Even large majorities of gun owners and NRA households agree with the American mainstream. [...]

"If our democracy is working the way it's supposed to..." is a phrase that stuck with me, largely because it seems our democracy is not working the way it's supposed to.

Indeed, as of yesterday, 15 Republican senators said they're prepared to prevent the Senate from even debating any bill that changes any gun law in any way. Forget voting for or against efforts to prevent gun deaths, the GOP lawmakers are prepared to ignore the overwhelming will of the American mainstream and kill popular legislation in its infancy.

In fairness, I should note that this is not a universal attitude among congressional Republicans, and just this morning, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said pending legislation "deserves a vote, up-or-down." Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) added that his party's filibuster threats are "wrong."

But the larger trend is hard to miss. As Ezra Klein explained this morning, "Gun control has emerged as an unusually clarifying test case for how Congress really works. On one side of the ledger is most everything that we think moves Congress: Public opinion, a national tragedy, the president's bully pulpit, elite opinion. On the other side is everything we wish didn't move Congress: a powerful but increasingly controversial interest group and, arguably, the minority's natural incentive to foil the majority's agenda. Guess which side is winning?"

I suspect many Americans have a rudimentary Schoolhouse-Rock-style understanding of how a bill becomes a law, and may expect something like background checks to pass, given the larger circumstances. But, once again, our democracy isn't working the way it's supposed to.

That's what's perhaps most frustrating about what's happening in Congress now. While there's broad consensus among the American people on gun safety reform, a rigid minority refuses to even allow votes on it. And while calls for action continue from constituents, some Senators are clearly ignoring their constituents. (Does Senator Dean Heller [R] really want to go there?)

Something must change.

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