The United States Senate should be ashamed of itself.
In a 54 to 46 vote last week, the Senate failed to overcome a Republican filibuster and voted down a gun-buyer background check amendment that is supported by nearly 90 percent of Americans. After the vote, two women shouted “Shame on you!” from the Senate gallery. One of the women was Lori Hass, the mother of one of the 33 victims of the Virginia Tech massacre in April 2007. The other was Patricia Maisch, who effectively disarmed Tuscon shooter Jared Loughner by wrestling away a new magazine as he tried to reload.
Let’s get one thing clear about this vote. The 45 members of the Senate who voted against expanding background checks on gun purchases (not counting Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid, who voted against the amendment so that he could re-introduce the bill at a later point) were not “protecting the Second Amendment.” Rather, they were protecting the interests of the gun lobby to the detriment of the American people. Each vote cast against the Manchin-Toomey amendment was an endorsement of the notion that guns should be freely available to felons, people with mental illness, and domestic abusers. There was nothing difficult or complicated about this vote.
“All in all, this is a pretty shameful day for Washington,” a visibly angry President Barack Obama said in a Rose Garden speech last Wednesday. “The American people are trying to figure out – how can something that has 90 percent support not happen?” Obama said.
Cowardice, Mr. President. Or, as Gabrielle Giffords wrote in the New York Times, “political fear.” “The senators who voted against background checks for online and gun-show sales, and those who voted against checks to screen out would-be gun buyers with mental illness, failed to do their job,” Giffords wrote. “They looked at these most benign and practical of solutions, offered by moderates from each party, and then they looked over their shoulder at the powerful, shadowy gun lobby – and brought shame on themselves and our government itself by choosing to do nothing.”
Failure. Even on a “bipartisan” proposal that, while important, hardly went far enough. In fact, the bill was riddled with concessions to the gun lobby. For example, federal law already prevents victims of gun violence from suing gun manufacturers and dealers for negligence; the Manchin-Toomey bill would have expanded that legal immunity to private gun sellers. In addition, the bill would have reduced the time the FBI has to prevent a sale if the background check is flagged. Current law gives the FBI 72 business hours to block a sale; the bill would reduce that to 24 hours after four years.
These are but two examples that help explain why the pro-gun lobby initially supported the bill. Indeed, the National Rifle Association called it a “positive development.” Similarly, the gun-rights group Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms initially endorsed the measure and the “numerous advances for our Constitutional right to keep and bear arms that it contains.”
Both organizations, however, quickly backtracked when passage of the bill became doubtful. The NRA announced that it would grade lawmakers’ votes on the bill. And in a remarkable display of cognitive dissonance, the CCRKBA lambasted the bill as an effort to “permanently disqualify as many Americans as possible from being able to exercise their fundamental rights under the Second Amendment.”
Background checks work remarkably well at deterring individuals who should not be permitted to purchase firearms from seeking to do so. Since 1998, the FBI has completed 167,488,942 of them. Over the same time period, just 590,078 individuals who have been “convicted of a crime punishable by more than one year or a misdemeanor punishable by more than two years” have attempted to purchase firearms using the background check system. That is just 0.35% of all background checks completed, suggesting that criminals overwhelmingly do not buy firearms from dealers that are required to perform background checks.
We should at least be able to expand this successful system to cover sales of firearms at gun shows and over the Internet. Making it more difficult for a criminal or person who is mentally ill to obtain a gun is a common-sense goal. Nobody is trying to take away guns from lawful gun owners. Support for the Second Amendment is not antithetical to support for sensible gun regulation.
Shortly after the vote, some commentators suggested that the Senate was looking to move on. “The last whimpers of the gun control debate in the Senate played out in anticlimactic fashion on Thursday as lawmakers began the process of formally moving on,” wrote Jeremy Peters in The New York Times.
Gun safety proponents, on the other hand, were adamant that this defeat was only round one, and that something must, and will, be done. President Obama vowed that “this effort is not over” in his speech in the Rose Garden. “I see this as just round one,” President Obama said. “I believe we’re going to be able to get this done. Sooner or later we are going to get this right. The memories of these children demand it, and so do the American people.”
Let’s make sure we keep the pressure on.