Gun-control advocate Robin Kelly's election to Congress may be the start of a broader shift in the political landscape. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast.)
The Senate’s defeat of common sense gun reforms made Wednesday a dark day—for sensible legislation, and for American democracy. The failure of an already-watered down background check compromise (55 senators backed reform; 45 sided with the NRA) revealed stunning political cowardice. And it illuminated once again the ugly fault lines of our corroded democracy—from the power of special and moneyed interests, to the stranglehold of small state bias (consider North Dakota, whose Democratic and Republican senators both sided with the NRA: the state gets one-fiftieth of our senators, despite having just over one five-hundredth of our population).
If the nation’s laws fail to represent the views of the overwhelming majority of its people, representative democracy becomes an unsustainable exercise. Yesterday's vote—which too many media outlets casually and uncritically reported would “require sixty votes to pass”—showed how badly Democratic leaders miscalculated by not standing strong for true filibuster reform, and how urgent it is to take up that cause again. The 111th Congress saw more filibusters than the 1950s, '60s and ‘70s combined.
Yet amidst the shame and ignominy, what also must be understood is that this struggle to curb gun violence, to join the civilized world, will take time and—most of all—a movement. Supporters of common sense reform have strong and good allies within Congress, and outside of it. If activists were to walk away in disgust, and hand victory to those Republicans and Democrats who obstructed a humane compromise, then a painful setback would become a lasting tragedy.
In our collective shock over the horror of Sandy Hook, many in the country expected immediate action from Congress. But this Congress is incapable of acting quickly. While in the gaze of history it may have seemed quick, we’ve forgotten that it took five years of persistent effort across the nation to pass the Brady Bill, the ban on assault weapons and the ban on large capacity magazines in the '90s. In that period we built a national movement, changed the dialogue, and did what everyone thought was impossible. We slayed the dragon. You could well see that process replayed here, but over a comparatively shorter stretch of time.
The 2014 cycle is not that far away, and with polls consistently showing support for gun reform, members in marginal seats may well pay a price for resisting gun reform efforts. Gun reform advocate Robin Kelly’s recent Illinois special election victory offers a positive sign of things to come. As strategist Bob Creamer noted Wednesday night, siding with the NRA could prove a heavy electoral albatross for Republicans in keeping the House or taking the White House. As Gabby Giffords promised in a powerful op-ed, “if we cannot make our communitites safer with the Congress we have now, we will use every means available to make sure we have a different Congress, one that puts communities’ interests ahead of the gun lobby’s.” Even more encouraging has been the passage of strong, smart statewide gun control laws in Connecticut, Maryland and New York—all states led by governors with a rumored eye towards the Democratic presidential primary in 2016. Activists in these states and others should keep the pressure on to rack up more victories that can filter up to Congress.