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Courage, cowardice & gun control

In the wake of yesterday's disappointing Senate vote that failed to break a filibuster on the proposal of universal background checks for gun sales, don't miss Gabrielle Giffords's opinion piece in today's New York Times: "A Senate in the Gun Lobby's Grip." Lots of people are calling the senators who voted "no" cowards, but few have the authority of Giffords when it comes to both legislative cowardice and courage in the face of gun violence.

The senators who voted against background checks for online and gun-show sales, and those who voted against checks to screen out would-be gun buyers with mental illness, failed to do their job.

They looked at these most benign and practical of solutions, offered by moderates from each party, and then they looked over their shoulder at the powerful, shadowy gun lobby and brought shame on themselves and our government itself by choosing to do nothing.

They will try to hide their decision behind grand talk, behind willfully false accounts of what the bill might have done trust me, I know how politicians talk when they want to distract you but their decision was based on a misplaced sense of self-interest. I say misplaced, because to preserve their dignity and their legacy, they should have heeded the voices of their constituents.

The failure of the Manchin-Toomey bill is particularly galling because it was not exactly "voted down": the vote was 54-46 in favor. But 60 votes were needed to defeat a threatened filibuster. Here's Jonathan Bernstein with a helpful explainer of how that is: "The correct thing to say about this is that the amendment was defeated by filibuster," he writes. "It's a little tricky, but that's the essence of it." Sean Sullivan of the Washington Post has another good account of how and why the filibuster killed this bill, including the role that poison-pill amendments played in guaranteeing that the Senate would agree to the 60-vote threshold in the first place.

"This blocking, by the minority, of a hugely popular and quite modest gun control measure ought to encourage the mainstream political press to perhaps interrogate the legitimacy of the 60-vote threshold a bit more critically," says Salon's Alex Pareene, "but probably we will just move on to budget stuff again." For a similarly frustrated and discouraging (but clarifying!) account of how Senate procedures prevented majority will from prevailing, see Jonathan Chait on "How America's Crappy Political System Killed Background Checks" (with a follow-up explaining to Rich Lowry et al. that no, the factors Chait cited are not the inevitable legacy of our Founding Fathers' vision for this nation).

Our editorial after the Newtown massacre supported expanded background checks and other reforms that were defeated yesterday. "A strengthened assault-weapons ban ought to be reintroduced in Congress," we said. "Let those who would oppose it defend their votes." Thanks to the normalization of obstructionism in the Senate, they didn't have to.

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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I do not understand these procedurals. Why doesn't the majority simply challenge the minority to enact their filibuster so that it more apparent to all the process of blocking the will of the majority. Mr Smith goes to...where? This ain't a Jimmy Steawart (or even Ron Paul) moment... let 'em filibuster and paralyze things and see what the constituents do then.

I'm feeling really edgy about this stuff right now. My daughters' school in the Bronx was in lockdown today. I'm not really sure what happened, but according to my daughters, fleeing bank robbers tried to hide in our Church (which is on the ground floor our school) so they locked own the school until they caught the robbers.I think there are too many people with guns and I don't like the idea of them being around my children.

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