Victories often contain the seeds of future defeats. So it is — or at least should be — with the Senate’s morally reprehensible rejection of expanded background checks for gun buyers.
The outcome is a test of both an invigorated gun safety movement and a gun lobby that decided to go for broke.
The National Rifle Association assumed that blocking new gun legislation in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre would firmly establish its dominance. Advocates of sane gun regulations would scatter in despair and be torn apart by recriminations.
But there is a flaw in the gun lobbyists’ calculation: Their strategy leaves the initiative entirely in the hands of their opponents. The early evidence is that rage over the cowardly capitulation of so many senators to raw political power is pushing activists against gun violence to redouble their efforts.
What was striking about Wednesday’s vote is that many of the senators who had expressed support for universal background checks after the slaughter at Newtown meekly abandoned their position when the roll was called.
Proponents of the measure, including Mark Kelly, the husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, spoke of private meetings in which senators offered no substantive objections to the compromise negotiated by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa. The wobbling legislators simply hinted that politics would not permit them to vote “yes.”
Giffords, the victim of the 2011 mass shooting in Arizona, founded Americans for Responsible Solutions to battle on behalf of gun reforms. She responded to the Senate vote with an op-ed in The New York Times that declared plainly: “I’m furious.” Senators, she said, “looked over their shoulder at the powerful, shadowy gun lobby — and brought shame on themselves and our government itself by choosing to do nothing.”
Giffords’ frustration echoed sentiment all across her side of the debate. In the past, Democrats who support gun safety had reacted benignly to members of their party from rural states who opposed sensible gun measures for expediency’s sake. Not this time. The response to Democrats who opposed background checks — Sens. Max Baucus, Mark Begich, Heidi Heitkamp and Mark Pryor — was indignation.
Begich invited scorn by insulting those who insisted that the Newtown massacre ought to be the last straw.
“It’s dangerous to do any type of policy in an emotional moment,” he said. “Because human emotions then drive the decision. Everyone’s all worked up. That’s not enough.” Describing the reaction to the death of so many children as “emotional” rather than rational should be electorally disqualifying.
But the vote also demonstrated for all to see a Republican Party walking in lockstep behind its commanders in the gun lobby. Only four Republicans bravely defied the NRA’s fanatical opposition to a very mild measure, including Toomey and Sens. Mark Kirk, John McCain, and Susan Collins.
This should send a message to all who keep looking for new signs of Republican moderation.
Republicans who cultivate a reputation for reasonableness — their ranks include, among others, Sens. Johnny Isakson, Lamar Alexander, Bob Corker, Saxby Chambliss and Rob Portman — could not even vote for a watered-down proposal. This tells us that the GOP has become a coalition of the fearful. In a pinch, the party’s extreme lobbies rule.
This vote also made clear that the right wing is manipulating our system, notably by abusing the filibuster, to impose a political minority’s will on the American majority. Since when is 90 percent of the nation not “the Real America”?
Not only do Americans overwhelmingly endorse background checks; senators representing the vast majority of our people do, too. The “yes” votes Wednesday came from lawmakers representing 63 percent of the population. How can our democracy thrive when a willful minority can keep dictating to the rest of the country?
But the next steps are up to the supporters of gun sanity. They can keep organizing to build on the unprecedented effort that went into this fight — or they can give up. They can challenge the senators who voted “no,” or they can leave them believing that the “safe” vote is always with the NRA. They can bolster senators who cast particularly courageous “yes” votes — among them, Mary Landrieu and Kay Hagan — or they can leave them hanging.
The story of reform in America is that it often takes defeats to inspire a movement to build up the strength required for victory. Which way this story goes is up to us.
Email E.J. Dionne at firstname.lastname@example.org.