Thursday, April 25, 2013

Fear of a black helicopter:
The Senate gun bill and what comes next

IT HAPPENED so long ago in media terms — days before the horrors of Boston — that it almost got off the radar. The Senate’s April 17 vote on S. 649, the vote meant to be a statement on Congress' willingness to advance the slightest firearms legislation on the nation's behalf, was a profound disappointment for supporters of gun control. The vote, 54- 46, was well short of the filibuster-proof majority of 60 votes needed, under rules imposed by Senate Republicans.

Americans were incredulous at the way the Senate Republicans, and some apostate Democrats, voted down the Manchin-Toomey bill, an already watered-down piece of legislation that would have set the bare minimum of standards on background checks to keep guns out of the hands of the very people who shouldn’t have them, and toughened laws on Internet sales.

President Obama was circumspect, and stoic. “I believe we’re going to be able to get this one,” he said. “Sooner or later we are going to get this right.” He added: “I see this as just round one.”

“To all the people who supported this legislation … you need to let your representatives in Congress know that you are disappointed and that if they don’t act this time, you will remember come election time,” Obama said.

“To change Washington, you, the American people, are going to have to sustain some passion about this,” Obama said.

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Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post sounded a decidedly downbeat note about the defeat of Manchin-Toomey, in his The Fix blog from April 17:

“Is Obama right? Are we in the first round of a 10-round fight on guns? Or does what happened on the Senate floor Wednesday amount to a knockout for the forces pushing for more gun control measures?”

Cillizza got his answer fast, from a lot of different places. A new Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey finds that New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican who voted against Manchin-Toomey, has nosedived in the hearts and minds of her constituents. The poll has Ayotte upside down in favorable (44 percent) and unfavorable (46 percent) sentiment; her unfavorables climbed 11 points since October.

In the PPP poll, 50 percent of those responding said Ayotte’s vote against background checks would make it harder to back her for re-election in 2016. Perhaps it’s not surprising since 75 percent of her state’s voters want those enhanced background checks.

The GE Capital unit of superconglomerate General Electric announced on Wednesday that it would stop its already-insigificant practice of providing loans for consumer purchases at gun stores. The Wall Street Journal and Reuters reported Wednesday that GE Capital had basically stopped the practice in 2008, with the exception of a relative handful of stores with “grandfathered” arrangements. After Newtown, the company quietly decided to pull the plug on those as well.

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AND OTHER vulnerabilities may already be showing. Howard Dean, on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on April 18, said Montana’s Max Baucus, who voted with the GOP against the Manchin-Toomey bill, was politically a dead man walking. “I'll predict right now, this is the end of Max Baucus' career,” the former Vermont governor and presidential candidate said of the nominally Democratic senator who chairs the Senate Finance Committee.

The governor can give himself another title: Political Nostradamus. Less than a week after Dean’s bold prediction, Baucus, who is 71, announced that he would not seek a seventh term in Congress. Baucus’ retirement next year would put the end on a 36-year career in the Senate, on top of two terms in the House before that.

‘‘I don’t want to die here with my boots on. There is life beyond Congress,’’ Baucus said in a telephone interview with The Boston Globe. Baucus was already thought to be subject to a primary challenge for earlier votes that advanced Republican initiatives at the expense of his own party. His vote against Manchin-Toomey in the face of overwhelming support from his own constituents may have been the backbreaker.

At some point before the vote, or maybe just after, Max Baucus confronted the very real likelihood that he’d have his ass handed to him if he ran in 2014. Faced with the devil-and-deep-blue-sea scenario of either standing up for his constituents or standing up to the NRA, Baucus took the easy way out by announcing plans to walk away from both of them.

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Fear has ruled this debate from the start. But it’s not just the grassroots Americans’ stereotypical nightmares of government control of American firearms — the fear of black helicopters swooping in overnight to take our guns and ammo — that informs the gun-law reform debate.

For red-state lawmakers like Baucus, Democrats and Republicans alike, it’s their own fear of a black helicopter that holds them hostage: a black chopper with the NRA logo on the side, appearing in the political skies above them, ready to start a missile strike on their careers.

Mark Glaze, the director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, gets this. “They've been around since 1871, and virtually unopposed for a generation. You don't dislodge that kind of influential force very quickly,” Glaze told NBC News’ Michael O’Brien. “The gun lobby's been around for a very long time, and it's going to take members of Congress a long time to learn that the ground has shifted under them.”

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“[I]t’s not clear whether anything that happens in the country or that President Obama (or OFA) can generate passion on the gun control side of the argument that comes anywhere close to matching that which exists on the other side,” Cillizza says in The Post. And that’s wrong.

As anyone knows if they’ve looked at the face of Nicole Hockley in numerous television appearances since her son Dylan was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary ... Cillizza couldn’t be more wrong. Passion, at the end of the day, is nothing more than an emotion, on a par with sorrow and pain — the sorrow and pain evident in Nicole Hockley’s bereft, inconsolable eyes ... and the eyes of other family survivors of what happened in Newtown, and everywhere else in the country affected by gun violence.

Is there a “passion” anywhere, of any kind, that’s stronger than a mother’s love for her child, or her sorrow at that child's violent passing? I dare you to find one.

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CILLIZZA CONVEYS the power of movement on gun-law reform to the Congress when, as recent evidence since Newton shows, much of the progress being made on gun-law reform isn’t being made on Capitol Hill. It’s happening at the state level, with legislatures more directly responsible to (and accessible by) their constituents voting to enact their own reforms. Whether it’s piecemeal or comprehensive, progress is progress. And that’s what’s going on under the radar, in the statehouses.

It would be silly to think this is over. Cillizza’s and other premature obituaries for the gun-law reform movement reveal, at root, a faith in the metric of money as the defining measure of success and failure. They don’t account for the ways in which, sooner or later, on the weight of both moral suasion and the irrefutable drumbeat of casualties — one gunshot victim at a time — the tide turns.

It’s happened before in our history. The drive for women’s suffrage. The fitful, painful momentum toward civil rights. It’s happening right now in the current push for gender and marriage equality. How does it work? After furious effort over an undetermined time frame, a Sisyphean incline starts to flatten out ... public opinion shifts ... and things begin to move the other way. What was once considered absolutely impossible becomes, over time, absolutely inevitable. This will be no different.

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CHRIS COONS, the Democratic senator from Delaware, said as much on April 18. “The Manchin-Toomey bill is not over,” he said on Current TV. “It is simply laid on the table. If there is a strong enough national response, it could be picked up and passed. But we have to move several votes that are gonna be tough to move, and will only move with very strong engagement.”

Howard Dean managed to put an upbeat spin on the Manchin-Toomey vote: “I think we had to have this battle,” he said on MSNBC. “We may have had to lose this battle in order to galvanize the American people to understand how they are being blackmailed by the far right.”

The drive for gun-law reform will keep happening as surely, as sadly, as the fact that people are going to keep being killed by gun violence. We’ve certainly reached the tipping point on the issue, as I’ve noted before. But no, it won’t yield results as dramatic as the word “point” implies.

We’ve come to a tipping era on reforming the nation’s gun laws. Given the fact that it took decades to get to this point, it just makes sense that the time it takes to undo much of the dangerous permissiveness vis-à-vis firearms access will have a time horizon longer than weeks or months.

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In his blog, Cillizza makes a lot (too much, really) of the fact that it took 124 days — the time between Newtown and the defeat of Manchin-Toomey — to reach this point in the current impasse over gun laws. He handily overlooks the calendar of history.

It took 11 months to get the Brady Bill to Bill Clinton’s desk. It took 21 months to get the Federal Assault Weapons Ban through Congress and onto his desk for signing.

Is this current fight over? Not likely. There’s a statement attributable to a number of visionaries: The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.

Note to Chris Cillizza: The arc of history’s a hell of a lot longer than 124 days.

Image credits: Senate vote: C-SPAN via Gabby Giffords and President Obama: via PPP logo: © 2013 Public Policy Polling. GE logo: © 2013 General Electric. Baucus: via Nicole Hockley: via New York Daily News. Others: Public domain.

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