Friday, April 12, 2013

The hollow-tipping point:
Senate takes up gun-law reform

CONGRESSIONAL DEBATE. Believe it. Those two words became reality on Thursday, as the United States Senate, making a bipartisan statement about the issue of gun-law reform, voted 68-31 to begin debate on legislation to address what’s become the most contentious issue in the country. The next step in all this, the start of the action in the Senate, may set the tone of the debate for months to come.

S. 649, the bill introduced on March 21 by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, is intended to make sure that “all individuals who should be prohibited from buying a firearm are listed in the national instant criminal background check system and require a background check for every firearm sale.”

Opposition to that bill by Republicans was predictably fast and furious. Trying a find a more palatable way, Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia introduced The Public Safety and Second Amendment Rights Protection Act, a bipartisan bill that focuses on expanded background checks and sharper limits to firearms access online.

That bill, introduced early Wednesday, will be offered as an amendment to Reid’s bill.

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Despite the bluster of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a flurry of GOP senators — Ayotte of New Hampshire, Chambliss of Georgia, McCain of Arizona, Graham of South Carolina, Kirk of Illinois, Collins of Maine, and more besides — abandoned plans to filibuster any gun-law reform bills, Manchin-Toomey included. Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia went so far as to support an up-or-down vote.

Others, though, won’t check that filibuster weapon at the door. McConnell and other Republicans have promised to snarl any bill’s advance every way they can, including filibusters and introduction of amendments that would slow a gun bill’s progress to a snail’s pace. The Three Amigos of the GOP — Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida — have said they may try a filibuster.

“Republican leaders say their side plans to offer dozens or perhaps hundreds of amendments could delay final Senate action on the bill for two weeks or more,” Politico reported on Wednesday.

And then, after all that, it goes to the GOP-led House.

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THERE’S SOMETHING for everyone to dislike in Manchin-Toomey. The bill calls for background checks at stores, gun shows and on Web sites; the gun show “loophole” would be closed. The measure would also ease travel issues for those with concealed-carry permits who need to carry firearms through states where concealed-carry would be illegal. Both senators said their bill would be one step toward full concealed-carry rights nationwide.

Active duty military personnel can continue to make firearms purchases where they live; and personal transfers of firearms is still unaffected (you can still inherit your father’s Henry rifle).

President Obama hailed the legislation in circumspect fashion. “This is not my bill, and there are aspects of the agreement that I might prefer to be stronger,” Obama said in a Wednesday statement. But, he said, the deal “recognizes that there are good people on both sides of this issue, and we don't have to agree on everything to know that we've got to do something to stem the tide of gun violence.”

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Within an hour or two of the announcement of the agreement, there were attempts by Republicans to undercut the news-cycle impact of the deal, and to reintroduce the prospect of dilatory tactics all too common in today’s Congress.

“The Manchin-Toomey proposal is a good faith but unworkable plan," Coburn said in a statement, as reported by The Hill. “The proposal will impose new taxes and unreasonable burdens on law-abiding citizens.”

“I think the chances of it passing are about 50-50,” a top Democratic aide told Politico about the bill’s chances for Senate passage. “I really don’t know how it will go.”

But ultimately, we do know. The American people, in any number of recent gun-control polls, have overwhelmingly defined the need for action in the context of a solution to a problem; the conservatives, the NRA have consistently denied that a problem exists, discounting the need for taking any substantive action at all. For them, politically, that’s going to be a problem they have no solution for.

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SOME IN the Beltway media have suggested that if ultimately passed in the Senate, the Manchin-Toomey agreement would create hard feelings equally on the left and the right. That’s probably not true, and the way it’s not true redounds to the Democrats’ advantage. Never mind the fact that expanded background checks have long been the tripwire, the line in the sand for the National Rifle Association — a boundary that this agreement goes beyond, however marginally.

The very bipartisanship of this agreement; the senators’ abandonment of the filibuster tactic that preceded it; the basic frustration evident in using a filibuster in the first place; and the reach-across-the-aisle narrative that evolved during the bill’s creation — all conform precisely with the all-hands approach to gun-law reform that President Obama has been calling for, for months. It reflects common ground that Republicans had vowed they’d never walk on.

True enough, many Democrats and independents will say it doesn’t go far enough; and since private purchases at gun dealers aren’t covered by the bill, there’s much to be said for that point of view. But there will be more Republicans — a lot more — who’ll say it goes too far.

A reasonably objective view, though, will define the Manchin-Toomey bill for what it really is: a step away from pursuing the politically unattainable Perfect, and a step toward capturing the practical, bipartisan Good.

And since it’s been the Republicans and the NRA who’ve fought so hard and long to keep from moving in that direction ... it’s obvious who wins this round.

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Want proof? The NRA’s first statement after the deal went down was a boilerplate expression of grudging acceptance. “Expanding background checks at gun shows will not prevent the next shooting, will not solve violent crime and will not keep our kids safe in schools,” the NRA said in its statement, released sometime late Wednesday afternoon.

Fast forward to Wednesday night at 8:54 p.m. (according to the Huffington Post clock): The NRA released a harder, blunter, longer statement stating it was “unequivocally opposed to S. 649.” And this time, in a Gestapo-spank move, the NRA doubled down on its own previous opposition, announcing plans to “score” senators according to their vote on the measure.

“We hope the Senate will replace the current provisions of S. 649 with language that is properly focused on addressing mental health inadequacies; prosecuting violent criminals; and keeping our kids safe in their schools,” read the revised statement by NRA chief lobbyist Chris Cox. “Should it fail to do so, the NRA will make an exception to our standard policy of not “scoring” procedural votes and strongly oppose a cloture motion to move to final passage of S. 649.”

In the NRA world view, apparently, you can catch more flies with punishment than you can with honey or vinegar.

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MAYBE IT’S a sign of how little headway has been made on gun-law reform in recent years — and even in the recent months since the horrors of Newtown — that even watered-down firearms legislation looks like progress. But it is progress, and it’ll be hard to stop, difficult to bottle up now that one vote in the Senate’s already happened and another is set for next week.

Round two’s about to begin. Manchin-Toomey, set for a Senate vote on Tuesday, still faces big hurdles. The bill’s Senate opponents are prepared to advance several amendments, including one from Graham that would replace the existing bill with a diluted version of the same legislation: a watered-down tweak of an already watered-down bill.

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But these delays may not matter. The gauntlet’s been thrown down. The tragedy of gun violence has achieved a breadth, a randomness in the nation that it’s never had before, and it’s uniformly frightening. For the survivors of gun violence, those in Newtown and Aurora, Oak Creek and Tucson and too many other communities, there’s no minimizing its impact. For them, the people with loved ones ripped away in an instant, this time is different.

For them, this is a battle for the future of America.

Every social phenomenon comes to that moment — what Malcolm Gladwell brilliantly calls “the tipping point” — when it either languishes in the obscurity of the cultural margins or explodes into the mainstream. In the debate over gun-law reform in the United States, that moment is now.

On Wednesday, Toomey, the Republican behind the bill bearing his name, may have unwittingly cut loose with a rhetorical broadside that frames the battle, the debate, to come. “I don’t consider criminal background checks to be gun control,” he said. “I think it’s just common sense.”

Image credits: McConnell: Via The Huffington Post. NRA logo: © 2013 National Rifle Association. 

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