Senator Ted Cruz points to a photo of a Remington rifle during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun control. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite.)
Among so many depressing days in Washington, Wednesday is surely one for the ages.
In the Hart and Russell office buildings, staffers panicked over packages deemed “suspicious” by police, which later turned out to be nothing, and a “man with letters in his backpack” was taken into custody. Meanwhile, Senators across the street in the Capitol were taking a decidedly more relaxed approach to policing potential danger—virtually ensuring that criminals can continue to by weapons at gun shows or online without submitting to a background check, and that those weapons can still be military-style assault weapons with 30-round clips.
As family members of the children killed in Newtown, Connecticut watched from the gallery, some crying, the Senate killed the Manchin-Toomey compromise on background checks by a 54-46 vote, though it was in practice 55-45, since Majority Leader Harry Reid voted ‘no’ for procedural reasons. All that’s left is the even stronger language in the original bill—which now surely cannot pass. The Senate is also expected to vote down amendments banning both assault weapons and high-capacity clips.
Equally as depressing was the rationale for doing so. Tuesday night, Republican Senator Dean Heller signaled the official death knell for the bill by announcing his opposition. “I believe that this legislation could lead to the creation of a national gun registry and puts additional burdens on law-abiding citizens,” he said. This is the central argument of the conservative opposition, typified by Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
The problem—and what any journalist covering the debate ought to point out—is that this language exists nowhere in the Manchin-Toomey bill. It simply extends background checks that already exist and have never lead to a national gun registry to gun shows and online sales. The ACLU said Manchin-Toomey would make such a registry less likely.
Even Cruz himself admitted this Wednesday—he said “on its face, the currently pending legislation does not purport to create a national gun registry”:
In other words, they know this isn’t actually in the bill, but it sounds like an awful good reason to vote against it. Other rationales were similarly empty: Right before the vote, Senator Mike Johanns said he would vote no because family members couldn’t give each other their guns—something not true of Manchin-Toomey and not even true of the more far-reaching, underlying bill it was supposed to amend. Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, announced her opposition because “This conversation should be about what is in people’s minds, not about what is in their hands.” (If you can figure out what that means, drop me a line.)
This might seem to make victory impossible to achieve going forward—how can these Senators be reasoned out of positions they have not reasoned themselves into?
If anything does, it will be the public outrage. Americans favor background checks 90 to 10 percent, and Manchin-Toomey even received a majority of votes in the Senate. But it won’t become law because of the irrational obstinacy of a very small handful of Senators.
When the vote was announced, a cry of “shame on you!” rang out from the gallery. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee announced it would launch ads against the Democrats who voted no. Mark Kelly and Gabby Giffords might fund a primary opponent to Arizona Senator Jeff Flake.
If gun control is going to stay alive in the Senate, it will be because the ‘no’ votes feel the heat and fear the consequences. But if you decide to contact them, maybe don’t send a letter.
For what might have been, see George Zornick's original cheat sheet on the components of the gun control package.