Senate Rejects Post-Orlando Gun Control Efforts
As expected, the Senate rejected four gun control measures introduced in the wake of the attack in Orlando.
Once again, a mass shooting prompted Senate Democrats to attempt to pass gun control legislation, including legislation that would have mandated expanded background checks and other proposals that would bar anyone on the terrorist watch or no-fly lists from being able to legally purchase a firearm, and, once again, those bills failed to make it past an initial Senate vote:
WASHINGTON — The Senate on Monday failed to advance four separate measures aimed at curbing gun sales, the latest display of congressional inaction after a mass shooting.
Eight days after a gunman claiming allegiance to the Islamic State killed 49 people in an Orlando, Fla., nightclub, the Senate deadlocked, largely along party lines, on amendments to block people on the federal terrorism watch list from buying guns and to close loopholes in background check laws. Families of gun violence victims looked on from the Senate chamber as the votes were held.
Further action on gun safety measures or mental health provisions seemed unlikely before the fall election, given the rush to finish a series of spending bills and the relatively limited time that Congress will be in session before November.
In addition, the four gun measures were attached to legislation that contains several other thorny issues, such as the question of whether to take passports away from terrorism suspects, which suggests there will be little chance for further debate.
Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, has been working on a compromise, disliked by both party leaders, that would bar the sale of guns to terrorism suspects who appear on either the government’s no-fly list or the so-called selectee list of people who receive additional scrutiny at airports. That bill, which is not as broad as the Democratic watch-list measure that failed on Monday, could surface later in the week
Partisanship and the power of the gun lobby played a large role in the amendments’ failure. Democrats structured their bills in a way that was almost certain to repel Republicans, while Republicans responded with bills equally distasteful to Democrats.
Democrats vowed to hammer Republicans during the campaign this fall.
“Our constituents see a disturbing pattern of inaction,” Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, said on the Senate floor on Monday. “Sadly, our efforts are blocked by the Republican Congress, who take their marching orders from the National Rifle Association.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, introduced one of the failed measures, which could have prevented anyone on the federal terrorism watch list and other terrorist databases from buying firearms or explosives. Democrats tried unsuccessfully to pass the measure after the shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., in December.
“It’s time for us to stand up,” Ms. Feinstein said.
Republicans, arguing that the list of people affected would be too broad and that the measure would not offer proper due process, put forward a competing measure. That amendment would have required the government to delay, during a 72-hour review period, the purchase of a gun by anyone who is a terrorism suspect or has been the subject of a terrorism investigation within the last five years.
“No one wants terrorists to be able to buy guns or explosives,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, said on the Senate floor on Monday.
The two other measures that failed included one offered by SenatorChristopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, who led a filibuster last week to make a point on guns. His measure sought to tighten background checks for gun buyers at gun shows and on the internet. Republicans offered a measure that was more focused on the mental health system.
The Obama administration, which has been pushing for a variety of new gun control legislation, vowed to press on.
“The view of the administration is that the American people should be engaged in the debate,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said on Monday. “So the fact that this is something that is being actively debated and considered in the Senate does represent incremental progress.”
Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has largely supported the positions of most Republicans, who want to preserve gun rights. Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has made her support for gun control a central tenet of her campaign.
None of this should come as a surprise, of course. Three years ago, in the wake of the killing of twenty elementary school students in Connecticut, the Senate was unable to pass an expansion of background check system notwithstanding the fact that polling at the time showed that the vast majority Americans, including most Republicans and most gun owners, supported such legislation. Last November, in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings which were soon determined to be an ISIS-inspired attack by an American who had been born in the United States and his foreign born wife, there was a similar effort to pass a “terrorist gap” that Senate Democrats had suddenly discovered and it too failed in the wake of Republican opposition prompted, at least rhetorically, over concerns about civil liberties and the propriety of using essentially secret lists to bar people from exercising their Constitutional rights. Again, this happened notwithstanding the fact that polling at the time indicated support for the measures that were considered by the Senate. Given the result those last two times, and again notwithstanding the fact that polling showed that the public generally supported the Democrats’ position, it was hardly surprising that the outcome turned out the way that it did. One suspects, in fact, that Senate Democrats went into this debate knowing that this would happen and hoping that it would be the beginning of a strategy that would turn the issue of gun control into one that could help Democrats up and down the ballot in the fall. The political cynicism behind this was seemingly evident in the fact that Democrats such as Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy were jumping all over this issue within 72 hours after Omar Mateen opened fire in the Pulse nightclub, and legislation that ordinarily takes weeks to draw up was ready to go to the Senate floor, without even so much as a committee hearing, within five days of the tragedy.
As a matter of substance, the background check provisions that were voted down were, at least from my point of view mostly unobjectionable. To a large degree, however, the “gaps” in the current background check system are largely exaggerated by gun control supporters and are generally limited to situations where private individuals are selling or transferring guns on their own rather than buying them from a federally licensed arms dealer, in which case the dealer is required by law to conduct a background check regardless of the circumstances of the sale. The so-called “gun show loophole,” for example, is largely non-existent because the vast majority of sales at gun shows are made by licensed dealers who will still go through the background check system. In that situation, someone who buys from a licensed dealer at a gun show will only leave the show with a firearm if the check is completed in time, which often depends on logistical issues beyond the control of the dealer. If there’s any kind of delay in the background check, the purchaser will have to go to the dealers place of business to pick up the weapon when the check is complete. Similarly, contrary to the representations of the President and others, it simply isn’t true that one can easily go online and purchase a gun without having to go through a background check. Under Federal law, any such online sales would still be subject to a background check and the weapon has to be shipped to a licensed dealer for pickup rather than sent directly to the purchaser. The number of situations where someone can legally avoid the background checks, then, are very limited and hardly as endemic as gun control advocates would have you believe. Notwithstanding that, as I said, I personally would not object to expanding the background check system to require, say, non-familial weapons sales and transfers to be processed through a federally licensed dealer and subject with a background check. The reality, though, is that this would do very little to cut down on either mass shootings or the illegal use of weapons.
Similarly, the issues surrounding the so-called “terrorist gap” which have been the subject of Senate votes in the wake of domestic terror incidents twice now, are far more complicated than the political talking points. As I noted when the issue first came up last December — see here and here — there are significant civil liberties issues raised by the idea of using either the “terrorist watch list” or the far more expansive “no-fly list” as a basis for denying someone a legal and Constitutional right. For example, individuals generally end up getting placed on these lists without notice and without any real opportunity to question the process that placed them on that list. This has proven to be quite a problem for people who have found themselves on either list for reasons that nobody would explain to them. Indeed, it’s often been the case that someone has ended up on one or both of these lists because of clerical error or other, inexplicable, reasons. The most glaring example of this may have been the time that Senator Ted Kennedy, yes that Ted Kennedy, discovered that he was on the no-fly list. Kennedy, of course, was able to use his influence as a Senator to get his situation fixed relatively quickly, but the same has not been true of average Americans who find themselves in similar situations. Given the flaws in these lists, using them to deny Americans constitutional rights seems completely inadvisable.
Leaving aside the merits of these bills, though, it was obvious from the start that they were not going to pass the Senate, much less the House, and that Democrats were largely staging these votes in the hope of providing themselves with an issue to exploit in the fall elections. Previous experience, though, suggests that this effort will fail. As I have noted numerous times before, even in the limited number of cases where polling shows that the American people might support a specific gun control measure, the odds that it can be exploited at the ballot box have been low because Americans do not consider gun control to be a high priority issue. In the wake of the Charleston shootings a year ago, I put it this way:
In the wake of the massacre of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary School by Adam Lanza, we saw a spike in public support for at least some forms of gun control, a phenomenon which caused many supporters of these measures to believe we’d reached a tipping point in a battle that has been going on for decades now. What both polling and actual election results tell us, though, is that gun control is a low priority issue for the vast majority of Americans, which means that the fact that a particular candidate may be more in tune with public opinion on that issue is no guarantee that they can actually win elections. We can see this in the fact that the failure of Manchin-Toomey led to no backlash at all against the Senators who blocked the bill from proceeding when elections rolled around. Additionally, while support for gun control had risen in the wake of Sandy Hook, that support quickly began to fade to the point where, by the one year anniversary of the shootings, public opinion on those issues had returned to the levels it was at prior to the attack. Conversely, it is also very apparent that the one group for whom gun control is something of a high priority issue are people who oppose it, as we say evidenced in the successful efforts in Colorado torecall legislators who had voted for the laws enacted in that state after Sandy Hook. That phenomenon continued into the 2014 elections, where even the millions of dollars thrown behind gun control efforts by the likes of Michael Bloomberg had little to no impact on the outcome of actual elections. By November of last year, gun control was at the bottom of the list of issues that most Americans said they were considering in deciding which candidates to vote for. As long as this remains the case, the political efforts to enact stricter gun control will fail. Indeed, Karl Rove was correct earlier this week when he said that the only way we’d see real political success for the gun control movement would be if the Second Amendment were repealed, although even that suggestion led some of the more paranoid elements on the right to falsely claim that he was advocating repeal of the Second Amendment. Rove is right, of course, mostly because if we actually lived in a world where there was enough support and intensity to achieve something like repealing one of the elements of the Bill of Rights, then there would also obviously be support for the kind of laws that gun control advocates continue to fail to get enacted except in the deepest of deep blue states.
This is the political reality of gun control in the United States. Unless and until it changes, significant gun control on the national level is unlikely. The situation is different in heavily Democratic states like New York, Connecticut, and California, of course, but then these states already have some of the toughest gun control laws in the country that go far beyond what the Federal Government has passed. Expecting anything similar in other parts of the country is, for the moment at least, politically naive.