Thursday, April 18, 2013
What the Senate Gun Vote Says About Washington . . . and About Us
Many experts predicted that the unspeakable murder of dozens of children and adults at Sandy Hook elementary school would be a “game-changer” that would cause Congress to enact meaningful controls over firearms. How wrong they were.
Yesterday, the United States Senate rejected every single legislative proposal to make it harder for people—including convicted felons-- to obtain and use firearms to inflict harm on themselves and others. Because of Senate rules requiring 60 votes to get just about anything passed, a minority of U.S. Senators were able to block a bipartisan plan for universal background checks offered by two Senators with “A” ratings from the NRA, despite the fact that 90% of the public supports expanded background checks.
Proposed bans on the future manufacturing and sale of military style weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines didn’t even get a majority of Senators to vote for them. These are the weapons of choice of mass murderers, used to gun down children and adults at Sandy Hook; college students at Virginia Tech; a member of Congress and others standing near her (including the murder of a young child) outside a grocery store in Tucson; movie theater patrons in Aurora, Colorado, and so many more people who have been killed or injured, in so many places, by assault weapons loaded with high capacity magazines. But banning such weapons and ammunition was too big a political lift for most U.S. Senators.
The background check proposal had a much more modest purpose, closing existing loopholes to keep guns out-of-the hands of convicted felons, persons with domestic violence restraining orders, and violent, mentally-disturbed persons under court order (while exempting most sales among family members), but that was also too much of a lift for politicians cowed by the NRA’s opposition and a passionate but small minority of gun owners who oppose expanded background checks. Support for background checks among gun owners is about the same as the general public, with 88% of them supporting background checks for all gun owners according to recent polls.
I am deeply disappointed that Senate rules allowed a minority to again block the will of the majority of the Senate and the will of an overwhelming majority of the public. I am deeply disappointed by the effectiveness of the NRA’s deceptive, cynical “slippery slope” argument that universal background checks would create a federal registry of gun purchases that later could be used by the government to take legal guns away from law-abiding owners, when such a registry is expressly prohibited by the background check bill as well as by current law barring the FBI from retaining records of persons passing background checks.
I am also disappointed that organized medicine didn’t do more to support the Senate bill. ACP did its part: we wrote letters of support for the background check bill and asked our 8,000 plus ACP Advocates Network members to urge their own Senators to vote for it. The American Academy of Pediatrics did at least as much as we did. But from what I can tell, most of the other national physician membership organizations and state medical societies sat this one out. They either didn’t engage at all prior to the Senate vote, or limited their engagement to a letter of support, without backing it up with grass roots lobbying, direct lobbying on Capitol Hill, and the other elements one would associate with a high priority campaign. In my blog post immediately after the Sandy Hook massacre, I asked “Is the Medical Profession Doing Enough About Gun Violence?” Regrettably, the answer for much of organized medicine, appears to be no.
But my disappointment over the Senate’s failure on guns pales to that of Gabby Giffords, the member of Congress who was grievously injured in the Tucson shooting. Read what she said in today’s New York Times:
“Senators say they fear the N.R.A. and the gun lobby. But I think that fear must be nothing compared to the fear the first graders in Sandy Hook Elementary School felt as their lives ended in a hail of bullets. The fear that those children who survived the massacre must feel every time they remember their teachers stacking them into closets and bathrooms, whispering that they loved them, so that love would be the last thing the students heard if the gunman found them.
On Wednesday, a minority of senators gave into fear and blocked common-sense legislation that would have made it harder for criminals and people with dangerous mental illnesses to get hold of deadly firearms — a bill that could prevent future tragedies like those in Newtown, Conn., Aurora, Colo., Blacksburg, Va., and too many communities to count.”
“I watch TV and read the papers like everyone else. We know what we’re going to hear: vague platitudes like ‘tough vote’ and ‘complicated issue.’ I was elected six times to represent southern Arizona, in the State Legislature and then in Congress. I know what a complicated issue is; I know what it feels like to take a tough vote. This was neither. These senators made their decision based on political fear and on cold calculations about the money of special interests like the National Rifle Association, which in the last election cycle spent around $25 million on contributions, lobbying and outside spending.
Speaking is physically difficult for me. But my feelings are clear: I’m furious. I will not rest until we have righted the wrong these senators have done, and until we have changed our laws so we can look parents in the face and say: We are trying to keep your children safe. We cannot allow the status quo — desperately protected by the gun lobby so that they can make more money by spreading fear and misinformation — to go on.”
My deep disappointment with the Senate’s failure on guns can’t come close to that expressed by the heartbroken father of his beloved seven year old son murdered in Sandy Hook. Mr. Barden spoke last night at the White House of his anguish at the loss of his son, his disappointment with the Senate vote, and his determination to press forward:
“We'll return home now, disappointed but not defeated. We return home with the determination that change will happen -- maybe not today, but it will happen. It will happen soon. We've always known this would be a long road, and we don't have the luxury of turning back. We will keep moving forward and build public support for common-sense solutions in the areas of mental health, school safety, and gun safety.”
(Click on this link to watch his remarks followed by President Obama’s statement).
I know that some readers of this blog argue that background checks and bans on assault weapons and high capacity magazine’s won’t work in preventing all or even most firearms injuries and deaths, and that may be true, although the best available studies and simple logic suggest that they would help.
Despite gaping loopholes, the current background check system resulted in some 1.5 million persons with criminal records being turned down when they try to buy guns. Logic tells us that a system that closes the loopholes would keep guns out of the hands of even more convicted felons. Logic tells us that limiting access to certain guns that are designed to kill as many people as possible would result in fewer people being killed when someone tries to obtain them to inflict harm on us and others.
Some of you may also point out that the issue is more complicated than simply regulating firearms purchases—that mental health, culture, substance and alcohol abuse, and other societal factors also play a role—and with that I would agree. But the need to examine other factors contributing to firearms-related injuries and deaths isn’t a valid argument for not doing what we can now to keep guns out of the wrong hands and to limit their killing capacity.
Listen to more of what Gabby Giffords had to say about the Senators who voted against background checks:
“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. They should have honored the legacy of the thousands of victims of gun violence and their families, who have begged for action, not because it would bring their loved ones back, but so that others might be spared their agony.
The should have, but they didn’t.
Today’s question: What is your reaction to the Senate’s rejecting of expanded background checks and a ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines?