It was a very modest step, but that didn’t seem to help. Even such a little thing as closing loopholes for background checks on gun purchases was too much for America’s pro-gun senators. The measure which, faute de mieux, had become the centrepiece of Barack Obama’s gun control plan failed on Wednesday to win a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
This New York Times graphic explains the vote: 54 of the required 60 senators voted in favor, but the underlying number is really 55 because Democrat leader Harry Reid voted against for purely procedural reasons (which I confess I don’t fully understand). The 45 opponents consisted of 41 Republicans and four Democrats from conservative states: Alaska, Arkansas, Montana and North Dakota.
Four Republicans switched the other way: moderates Susan Collins and Mark Kirk, the unclassifiable John McCain, and the usually conservative Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who co-sponsored the measure with conservative West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin. But that gesture of bipartisanship wasn’t enough to get it across the line.
Disclosure here: by Australian standards, I’m pro-gun, in that I believe in an individual right to gun ownership for self-defence. I also agree with the majority of the Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment as a matter of law protects an individual right, not just the formation of a militia.
But contrary to what the National Rifle Association and other such groups (and some of their opponents as well) would have you believe, the Second Amendment offers no reason at all to oppose the Manchin-Toomey proposal. The expression “well regulated” actually appears in the Second Amendment; its authors clearly contemplated that gun ownership could be subject to government supervision and the Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed, in Heller and elsewhere, that restrictions such as background checks are constitutional.
Since nothing in the proposal actually touched the right of sane, law-abiding citizens to own guns, the NRA had to wilfully misrepresent it in order to rally opposition. It portrayed it as the thin end of the wedge, a step towards national gun registration – even though the language of the amendment specifically ruled out such a thing. As an indignant president put it, “this pattern of spreading untruths about this legislation served a purpose, because those lies upset an intense minority of gun owners, and that in turn intimidated a lot of senators.”
From the fact that the arguments against the amendment make no sense, it doesn’t follow that the votes make no sense. The problem is what one might call the paradox of gradualism: the more some proposal is softened in order to placate opposition, the less reason anyone has to vote for it on its merits, and so the more they can feel able to take a purely symbolic position.
In this case, the fact that the practical impact of the measure would have been small didn’t diminish the fervor of the opposition: a symbolic loyalty to guns is what it was contending for. But it did make its supporters less likely to risk their necks for it. Jon Chait explains:
What’s more, this particular gun vote was an especially good time for Democrats to defect. None of them cast the deciding vote; it fell six votes shy of defeating a filibuster. The bill was already a compromise of a compromise, something that would have stopped a tiny fraction of gun crimes. Even if it passed the Senate, it faced steep odds of passing the House, where it probably would have died, been weakened further, or even turned into a law that weakened existing gun laws.
Nate Silver has a statistical analysis that leads back to the same point. In addition to the obvious factors of a senator’s own views and their party allegiance, he finds that local gun ownership, the partisan leaning of their state and whether or not they are up for re-election next year all had some explanatory value in predicting a senator’s vote.
If it was going to be such a hard sell anyway, should Obama have gone for a more ambitious plan so as to give his supporters something worth fighting for? Well, probably not. To some extent he did that anyway, proposing to also reinstate the ban on assault weapons – a measure that failed rather more decisively.
Adam Winkler in the New Republic argues that although the assault weapons ban might have been intended as an ambit claim that could be compromised on, it turned out to be counter-productive. It stimulated opponents like the NRA, and it drew out the process, thus giving them more time to mobilise. “Obviously, the administration’s strategy for overcoming the NRA and its allies didn’t work.”
But with public opinion appalled by gun violence and overwhelmingly in favor of background checks, it’s in the administration’s interest to keep the issue alive in the hope that it might at least do it some good in next year’s mid-term elections.