On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate was the scene of a double abomination. The first was the defeat, in the aftermath of one mass murder after another, of a modest measure to improve the background checks designed to prevent criminals and the seriously mentally ill from purchasing firearms. The second was the defeat of democracy at the hands of a minority of senators in thrall to, or fear of, the National Rifle Association and other foes of virtually any restriction on firearms.
Democracy lost, not just because 90 percent of the American public support expanding background checks, but because a majority of senators supported the measure. The vote was 54-46 in favor, but under the arcane rules the Senate created for itself, it takes at least 60 votes to accomplish anything of substance. So, with many of the parents of the elementary school students killed in Newtown, Conn., and other victims of gun violence looking on, the Senate refused to make it harder for felons and persons of questionable sanity to buy guns.
Five Democrats, including Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, who switched his vote in order to preserve the option to bring the matter up again, voted against expanding the checks. Four Republicans voted in favor of the checks. We’re sorry to say Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who as the state’s former top law enforcement officer would normally be expected to support a measure that might keep guns out of the hands of criminals, was not among them.
Ayotte explained her position by saying that she could not support the bipartisan bill because she believes it would “place unnecessary burdens on law-abiding gun owners and allow for potential overreach by the federal government into private gun sales.” Her statement is utter nonsense.
The law does not affect gun owners who want to sell a weapon to a friend, relative or a gun dealer, and the bill specifically forbade the federal government from storing background check information or creating a registry of gun owners.
Ayotte’s vote, like the votes of most senators who thumbed their noses at the will of a populace sickened by violence, was political. Opponents wanted to avoid the wrath of a gun lobby willing to spend millions to demonize politicians who don’t toe their firing line.
If there ever was a time to even marginally strengthen this nation’s gun laws it was Wednesday, in the presence of the survivors and loved ones of one mass murder after another. The 2014 midterm elections could result in a Congress capable of passing gun control legislation and other measures stymied by filibusters, but we wouldn’t count on it. There is another way, a dangerous path to be sure if not tread carefully, but one the time has come to take.
In an essay in the current issue of the Harvard Journal on Legislation, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who voted for the gun check bill, discussed the history of the Senate filibuster and the factors that led to legislative gridlock. She outlines a range of measures, from modest procedural changes to an outright end of the filibuster rule in favor of a simple majority vote, at some point in the proceeding, to end debate.
Shaheen concludes her essay with these words:
“It may well take the obstruction of the passage of popular legislation despite majority support in the Senate, something akin to the events at the onset of World War I that led to the adoption of Rule XXII, to make the fundamental change I think is necessary to reflect the current realities of the U.S. Senate.”
That obstruction of popular legislation occurred last week. At the beginning of each session, the Senate can, by a simple majority vote, change its rules. It should do so next January, and drastically diminish or abolish the filibuster rule.