The He Said, She Said of Gun Control: Get Over It

by Stuart Rothenberg April 24, 2013 · 11:34 AM EDT

The deep disappointment coming from the White House, gun control advocates and the parents of Newtown, Conn., at the demise of the Manchin-Toomey Senate compromise gun bill is understandable. But some of the rhetoric following the amendment’s defeat has been over the top.

Supporters of stricter gun control have called those who voted against the measure “cowards,” a strange label for senators who voted contrary to what 85 percent of the country, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and virtually all in the media wanted. Is it courageous to follow national public opinion and most of TV’s talking heads or to vote against them?

Opponents of additional gun restrictions haven’t engaged in as much name-calling, but they act as if the government is about to confiscate their weapons and destroy the Second Amendment. We’d be better off with less emotion on both sides.

Do supporters of Manchin-Toomey have reason to complain that opponents mischaracterized the proposal to create fear and gin up opposition? Absolutely. But that happens in almost every intense legislative fight. Deal with it.

Do opponents of Manchin-Toomey have reason to be frustrated at the purely emotional appeals of the amendment’s supporters? Yes, I believe so. But that’s politics. Get over it.

Supporters of the Manchin-Toomey bill (and other gun control proposals) complain that politics was involved, that members cared more about their political survival than “doing right.”

Well, politics is always involved, and if many senators made their decisions on the basis of how it would affect their electoral futures, I don’t have a problem with that. Isn’t that how things are supposed to work?

Of course, whether those senators made the right call for their political futures is another separate question.

Most of the complaining is coming from supporters of increased restrictions who argue that senators who voted against a measure that had widespread support weren’t responding to public opinion, but rather to the National Rifle Association.

Sorry, but considerations about the NRA are directly related to public opinion, as potential primary challenges are a part of politics and because members are more politically sensitive to opinion in their states than to national public opinion. If those members’ calculations were wrong, they’ll find that out when they stand for re-election.

In his recent New Yorker piece, “Four Reasons Why the Gun-Control Bills Failed,” Ryan Lizza complained about “how anti-Democratic and dysfunctional our political architecture is.” (He isn’t the only one to complain about this.)

He is correct, of course, that the filibuster and the structure of the Senate exaggerate the influence of the minority. And that’s by design. The rules were created to protect the minority and to require a broader consensus than a mere majority to enact controversial legislation. It’s important to remember that the Senate and the filibuster don’t allow a minority to enact legislation, only to stop it from passing.

“Try explaining [the need for a 60-vote supermajority] to a mother whose child was gunned down in a first-grade classroom in Connecticut,” Lizza wrote in his piece.

That would be hard to do, of course, possibly impossible. But is that the test of whether a political process is a good one or whether a legislative outcome is wise? I don’t know why an individual’s grief, however awful, should be more important than a system that protects the minority.

Some of the blame for the failure of the Senate to pass anything has to rest with those who chose how the Senate would address legislative proposals to respond to the Newtown shootings.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s base bill could have been one of the proposals most likely to pass, such as the mental-health funding proposal offered by Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., (which received 95 votes) or the gun-trafficking amendment of Sens. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., and Susan Collins, R-Maine.

That way, even if the most controversial proposals failed, the Senate would have been able to pass a bill.

Instead, the Nevada Democrat introduced legislation that had little or no chance to pass. When the Manchin-Toomey amendment failed, the entire bill was doomed. And because of that, possible compromises and amendments that could have passed suddenly became irrelevant.

Reid’s strategy didn’t doom Manchin-Toomey, but it doomed possible compromises on gun trafficking, school safety and more money for criminal prosecution and mental health.

So while 45 senators prevented passage of a bill expanding background checks and 48 senators defeated the Grassley amendment, which included many of the provisions of Manchin-Toomey, Reid probably is most responsible for the Senate’s inability to pass any bill to respond to the Newtown shootings.

If you want to know whether any “politics” went into Reid’s decision, you’ll have to figure that out for yourself.