Token Dissonance

Black & gay, young & conservative. A Southern gentleman writes about life and politics after Yale


Gunning for Senate Reform

Update: This post was adapted by The Huffington Post. You can find that article here.

“I’ll tell you this—No eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn.” –Jim Morrison

There’s been a lot in the news this week about violence and the various ways Americans are trying to address its complex manifestations. On the gun violence front, the U.S. Senate voted Wednesday on seven different amendments to reform gun laws in an attempt to produce a bill that would advance beyond the filibuster. For the highlights:

Two amendments were offered and supported almost exclusively by subsets of the Democratic caucus (and Mark Kirk of Illinois). Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) proposed banning magazines that can hold more than 10 bullets. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) proposed banning a list of certain specially identified semiautomatic guns and accessories that comprise what she styles “assault weapons.”

Three amendments were offered by Republicans. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) aimed to add language that would require “judicial authority” to bar veterans and their families from bearing arms. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) intended to allow for a certain degree of reciprocity in concealed carry allowance. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) offered perhaps the most ambitious conservative measure. His proposal was designed to improve the availability of records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, address the intersection of mental health and crime, and criminalize straw purchases and gun trafficking.

Only two amendments failed completely. The Democratic bans—on so-called “assault weapons” and “high-capacity” magazines—were each opposed by an outright majority of Senators. Of all the votes, Feinstein’s gun ban fared the worst, garnering merely 40 votes in favor (39 Democrats plus Mark Kirk) to 60 votes opposed (44 Republicans and 16 Democrats).

The other five amendments—Democratic and Republican—each won between 52 and 58 votes. Nevertheless, all failed due to the filibuster threshold of 60 votes.

All of the Republican proposals received outright majority support but were ultimately blocked by Democratic filibusters. For a party with a 10-seat deficit in the upper chamber, that level of relatively bipartisan appeal is a noteworthy feat. The two primarily Democratic measures that attracted majority support were Sen. Patrick Leahy’s (I-Vt.) attempt to make gun trafficking a federal crime (which was backed by the N.R.A.), and the joint venture by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) to expand background checks.

For whatever reason, the vote on the Manchin-Toomey amendment is gaining the most attention among the same chattering classes that still haven’t figured out why semiautomatic weapons aren’t assault rifles. But President Obama’s indignation notwithstanding, the background check endeavor was not the only potential law foiled by minority intransigence.

Contrary to what you might hear from much of the media about gun reform and obstructionism, the Democratic Party is at least as much to blame for recent legislative failures as the GOP. Every one of the Republican proposals not only earned more than 50 votes but also presumably stood a decent chance at a fair hearing in the House of Representatives. By contrast, only half of the Democratic bills (if we count the “bipartisan” Manchin-Toomey bill among them) could be so regarded.

Thus, of the five bills that would have passed the Senate in lieu of the filibuster, three were killed by (mostly) Democrats and only two by (mostly) Republicans. Worst still, even The New York Times notes that more liberal Democrats blocked sensible GOP proposals essentially out of spite, despite previous exhortations not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good:

“Mr. Begich said the Senate could have united behind measures with broad support, like strengthening the existing background check system with more data about would-be gun buyers who have been deemed mentally ill, rather than expanding the checks to sales not now covered. Mr. Begich also cited bolstering school safety, criminalizing gun trafficking and improving mental health programs.

“That’s a lot,” he said. “Is it perfect? No. But it’s a lot.”

Those modest steps, however, were sacrificed because other Democrats did not want to see further-reaching provisions fail at the expense of a package that the gun rights lobby wanted, aides said.”

That this travesty of process is a resounding failure on all sides is a burden we all bear with appropriate shame. But the way forward is not through escalating antagonism—if further escalation is even possible at this point.

It is a truism that we will not all agree on the best way forward to address violent crime—or any other issue—in America. (We can’t even all agree that the world isn’t run by lizard people!) Yet at some point, we will need to sustain a certain level of good faith and mutual respect in order to accomplish some semblance of meaningful reform. Pretending that the other side has offered nothing—and I have yet to hear liberal pundits give fair accounting of the popular Republican amendments stymied by Democratic filibuster—simply because you disagree is neither productive nor fair. And it affords no moral righteousness that compels beyond the choir.

But after everything else, standing up in the Rose Garden or on your MSNBC soapbox and disparaging the personal integrity or humanity of the opponents whose earnest input your allies just rejected is, frankly, rude. There is plenty of disgust to go around, but now is the time to be constructive. There is much work yet to be done.