Yesterday, a gun control bill was killed in the senate. This wasn’t a “take all guns away” bill, or a “national registry of gun owners” bill (although some Republicans misreported that it was), it was a bill to expand background checks. Background checks for guns. If that sounds pretty harmless, that’s because it is. If it sounds obvious and straightforward and not terribly controversial, congratulations you are part of roughly 90% of Americans who polls suggest support this bill.
So why did it die?
Well, first you have a “cowardly” group of Senators, although another term for them might be “sociopathetically pragmatic”. Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) sums it up nicely in that piece:
I watch TV and read the papers like everyone else. We know what we’re going to hear: vague platitudes like “tough vote” and “complicated issue.” I was elected six times to represent southern Arizona, in the State Legislature and then in Congress. I know what a complicated issue is; I know what it feels like to take a tough vote. This was neither. These senators made their decision based on political fear and on cold calculations about the money of special interests like the National Rifle Association, which in the last election cycle spent around $25 million on contributions, lobbying and outside spending.
There it is, laid bare. It’s not how Fox News will frame it, not even how the President will frame it (he still has to work with these people for three more years, after all), but that’s what happened. Senators on both sides of the Aisle (and, of course, one side more so than the other) put political capital and fear of retribution ahead of preventing another murder, another suicide, another accident.
What sucks is they’ll probably get away with it, too. That’s how these things work. Hard science using hard data is largely forgotten in the wake of tragedy. Pundits cry out “How could this have happened!” but they mean it rhetorically and politicians urge people to come together and pray, or hug their children (assuming they weren’t the ones who lost them). Everybody ignores the science because to face it would mean to acknowledge that this wasn’t a “random act of violence” but one more data point on a pattern that has been emerging for years. They ignore it because to face it would be too hard. How could this have happened? We allowed it to.
A major argument that gun rights advocates use is to suggest that restricting guns is restricting freedom. They say that guns in the home are the last bastion of defense against “tyranny”. They’re wrong, but that’s beside the point. The irony here is that a bill like this being killed with 90% public support is proof positive that our system of democracy is savagely misaligned. The only tyranny here is that a small group of wealthy and politically powerful men and women were able to, for reasons as shallow as profits and image, outmaneuver the entire country’s moral intuition. To take a page from their own playbook, this CANNOT be what the Founding Fathers intended. They could not have foreseen a political system moored so completely to the interests of business that even a massacre of 20 children cannot result in any constructive legislation.
Somebody should tell the guy on Facebook holding an assault rifle and warning that he is willing to die shooting to protect his freedom that he already lost it. Sure, in this case it’s to a political lobby that he thinks is on his side, but it demonstrates a larger point that public opinion can only do so much now. “Speak softly and carry a lot of cash”, to update a popular witticism. Next time it might be something he does care about that gets filibustered because a corporation or interest group has decided it might cut into profits. The NRA aren’t the only ones who have taken note of how easily they derailed the political process, anyone with an agenda and a sizable bank account could do the same thing. They might even be able to do it more easily, most agendas don’t have to contend with 11,422 homicides and 19,392 suicides in 2010 (source).
To be fair to Obama and the Senators who confidently assured us that the bill would pass the Senate, if not the House, they were outmatched. No one could have expected the NRA to be so gifted at getting their message out there and more determined to not yield one inch in the direction of gun safety. It’s no longer enough to have 20 dead children, you must have a strong enough message. We truly live in the age of memes. For a look at four reasons why the bill failed, The UK’s The Telegraph sums it up nicely in this article. It explains how determination from the gun lobby and diffidence from the left destroyed any chance this bill had. Maybe we should have seen it coming.
Truthfully, we really do have one final bastion of defense against tyranny. It’s the one area that cannot be entirely subverted by money and interest groups. Say it with me: Voting. As the billionaire Koch brothers and Karl Rove learned in the last election, money doesn’t buy everything. It’s important to elect people who won’t be bought either. That’s not always easy to see during an election, and once they get to the capitol or the White House they may have second thoughts about their campaign assurances to remain stoic in the face of the Lobbyists but we can try. We can move the needle in the direction of morality and away from the side of pragmatism. It will have an amplifying effect as well because as representatives start seeing that their jobs are in jeopardy not because of the NRA but because of their constituency, they might hesitate to listen to the NRA’s nonsense. If you’re looking for a place to start your research for the 2014 elections, you may want to consider the 46 men and women who decided to vote against common sense and integrity yesterday.