Gun Background Checks: Winners and Losers Of a Failed Bill
On Wednesday, Republican senators did what they do best since President Obama took office: they blocked progress.
Forty-one out of 45 Republican senators voted against background checks, something that the vast majority of Americans support. Now that the Republican senators have decided to vote against progress towards improved gun safety laws and responsible gun ownership we should recap the winners and losers in this debate.
The National Rifle Association
The NRA did its job. They obfuscated the truth – "the gun lobby and its allies willfully lied about the bill," said President Obama. They flip-flopped on their own position and protected the commerce rights of gun manufacturers.
The first thing to remember when it comes to the NRA and its goals is that — despite its carefully cultivated image as a hobbyist group for hunters and sportsmen — it's far more like a trade or lobbying group for gun manufacturers. It's the gun companies, after all, who largely fund the group. This is relevant because the imperatives of weapons producers are different from those of consumers. While polls show that gun owners — and even members of the NRA – are willing to support certain restrictions on gun ownership, these are not the opinions that matter. If the manufacturers (i.e., the funders of the group) will stand to lose massive profits from a given initiative, logic dictates that averting said measure would be fought by the NRA with brute force.
The Republicans have made it clear that they will not allow Obama to claim any victory even if it means going against the wishes of their own constituency. As historian Dr. Tim Stanley suggested in The Telegraph, "why should conservative senators give him a legislative victory after he has spent four years painting them as knuckle-dragging rednecks that hate women and the poor?"
Paranoid conservatives and libertarians
Some conservatives and libertarians believe we are on a slippery slope towards the erosion of all civil liberties. They feel any erosion of second amendment rights will lead to a further erosion of all rights guaranteed in the Constitution. They distrust anything that comes out of government or the court system (Heller specifically states that there can be restrictions to Second Amendment rights) that doesn't fit their view of life in America. Matt Lewis captured this sentiment best when he wrote in The Daily Caller, "there is an explanation as to why anyone who cares about defending the Second Amendment might oppose even the most modest infringement. Simply put, many conservatives fear that freedoms will be eroded incrementally — that giving the agitators background checks today will inexorably lead to gun registration tomorrow (and to confiscation the next day). Some may see this as paranoid, but one man's paranoia is another man's vigilance."
The National Republican Senatorial Committee
After fumbling their attempt to take the Senate in 2012, the GOP has its eyes set on 2014. Four red state Democrats crossed party lines and voted against background checks. Three of the four, Senators Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Max Baucus (D-Mont.), and Mark Begich (D-Alaska) are facing re-election in deep red states. The fourth, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) is a freshmen senator elected in 2012. President Obama displayed intense anger at the result of the vote declaring that the bill passed his test "but too many Senators failed theirs." According to The Raw Story, progressive organizations "vowed to target Democrats who voted against expanded criminal background checks." "We'll be holding accountable Democrats who voted against their constituents by running ads in their states," remarked Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "Democrats who were too cowardly to get on the right side of a 90-10 issue like universal background checks better believe that the progressives will remember their spinelessness on gun violence prevention come reelection time," added Neil Sroka, communications director for Democracy for America. These four Democrats may have set up a wedge issue in their respective states and that makes the NRSC job that much easier.
Obama staked all his political capital on a gun reform package. He championed the cause and made a solemn and tearful promise to the families of Sandy Hook and the nation at large that gun reform was a top priority of his early second term administration. He swiftly convened a special commission led by Vice President Biden to come up with proposals and recommendations. He set a tight time schedule and demanded the commission produce its results by mid-January, only 30 days after the Sandy Hook massacre. Obama announced the formation of the commission with these words, "I will use all the powers of this office to progress the efforts to reduce gun violence." He put his reputation on the line and it was not enough to get the necessary votes. Obama described the defeat as "a pretty shameful day for Washington," but in reality what it proves is that we will have four more years of lame duck presidency. Dr. Tim Stanley wrote in The Telegraph, "Nobody listens to what he says anymore, nobody is interested in winning his approval and nobody much cares if he thinks they have 'let the country down.'"
Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.)
The majority leader failed in his effort to marshal enough support to get any of the bills passed. The Republicans threatened to filibuster the decision to even debate the issue. Reid was able to convince enough Republicans to avoid that embarrassment and at least proceed to a vote. Sixteen Republicans cross party lines so that the Senate could vote on gun reform and safety legislation. However, all but four Republicans rejected the bipartisan background check proposal. Reid was forced to cast a procedural "nay" vote so that the issue could be addressed at a later date.
Senator Diane Feinstein (D-Calf.)
Feinstein had re-introduced legislation to ban certain types of weapons and high capacity magazines. Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor wrote in The New Republic that this non-starter issue made any hope of a bipartisan agreement on any other gun safety legislation a remote possibility at best. Winkler wrote, "there was only one certain outcome from proposing to ban assault weapons: it was guaranteed to stimulate the fiercest opposition." Focusing on a ban of weapons set up a hostile environment and made gun rights advocates wary of any legislation.
Bipartisanship and centrist, moderate politics
Senators Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) crafted a bill designed to not infringe on any Second Amendment rights, and carefully worded to not place any undue burdens on law-abiding citizens. They had the demeanor and background (A rating from the NRA) to craft a bipartisan agreement on background checks. But bipartisanship died the day Obama was elected president. Republicans are never going to forget that Obama and the Democrats used their majority to push through the stimulus and health care legislations. Sean M. Theriault, an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Austin told The Washington Post, "the Manchin-Toomey compromise has gone the way of the bipartisan budget commission, the Gang of 6's deficit reduction plan and the [budget] Supercommittee." The Washington Post explained Wednesday's vote on background checks was "another setback for efforts to find bipartisan accord on difficult issues that have resisted resolution." Next up: immigration reform.
The Big Loser
The American People
According to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, "9 in 10 Democrats, more than 8 in 10 Republicans and independents, and almost 9 in 10 Americans who live in households with guns backed the proposal" to expand background checks. The message to the American people is that polls and public opinion do not have the same effect on public policy as a concerted vocal, well-financed lobbyist. This vote shows that elected officials do not always, if ever, represent the will of the people. It shows that despite declining approval ratings and calls for bipartisanship, Congress remains detached from the American citizenry. Theriault said the vote "serves as reinforcement for how dysfunctional Congress has become." And that means the American people lose again.