What more can be said about mass shootings in America? We who find ourselves outraged anew by each fresh massacre have settled into a routine. There’s now a canon of essays and satirical pieces to share on social media; in conversations online and off, we offer familiar rebuttals to familiar Republican diversions and deflections. Democratic politicians, for their part, have just about perfected their own boilerplate language. “When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?” Biden asked in his Tuesday speech on the Uvalde shooting. “When in God’s name will we do what we all know in our gut needs to be done?”
For the first time since the Sandy Hook shooting a decade ago, the Democratic party has the power to do what needs to be done. It controls the White House. It controls the House of Representatives. And it controls the Senate, where a bipartisan group of senators has talked in recent days about measures – from universal background checks to incentives for states to allow the confiscation of guns from threatening individuals – that probably would not have a prayer if Republicans were in the majority. But they still might not even now. While we will not have a clear sense of where everyone stands until the Senate returns from a fortuitously timed holiday, gun control legislation faces the same basic obstacles that have hobbled the rest of the Democratic party’s agenda – the filibuster and the rhetoric of consensus.
As many weary Democratic voters are now well aware, it effectively takes 60 votes in the US Senate, not the simple majority that Democrats hold, to break a filibuster and pass non-fiscal measures. And while rage at Republicans, the NRA and the gun lobby remains well justified, it is moderate Democrats who support keeping the filibuster – Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema and Democratic colleagues who might privately back their position – who are preventing the party from simply advancing gun control legislation on its own. Instead, they will need the support of at least 10 Republicans – a daunting hurdle Manchin and Sinema have defended on the grounds that major policy changes should win broad bipartisan support.
“It makes no sense why we can’t do commonsense things to try to prevent some of this from happening,” Manchin told reporters this week. “The filibuster is the only thing that prevents us from total insanity.”
As Manchin knows personally, the filibuster is actually the only thing preventing the Senate from passing the commonsensical reforms he putatively supports. In 2013, he and the Republican Senator Pat Toomey co-authored a bill expanding background checks to gun shows and gun sales over the internet. The majority of the chamber supported it – 54 votes, including four Republicans. But it needed 60 to overcome the filibuster. It died – a failure that gives lie to the canard that the filibuster actually facilitates bipartisanship. With an extremely modest bipartisan compromise on the table, the Senate instead passed nothing.
That same fate may await the bill Senate negotiators are piecing together now; there’s a plot in the graveyard alongside Biden’s other legislative priorities already waiting for it. And if it fails, the design of the Senate itself will bear most of the blame. The reality Democrats are loth to admit is that if the NRA and the whole gun lobby sank into hell tomorrow, the chamber would still disproportionately empower voters in the most sparsely populated and conservative states in the country – the voters most likely to vehemently oppose not only regulations on gun ownership, but most of the major policies that Democrats, backed by majorities of the American public, hope to pass. And while significantly altering or eliminating the Senate obviously will not be in the cards anytime soon, Democrats are heading into this year’s midterms and the potential loss of at least one chamber of Congress without having taken more basic steps to balance the chamber, including the elimination of the filibuster or the admission of liberal Washington DC as a state.
Instead, they have left the American public chained to a fantasy – the idea that the surest and most defensible route to meaningful change is bipartisan action, no matter how intransigent the Republican party proves itself to be. That’s a delusion pushed not only by moderate politicians who have an interest in constraining the Democratic party’s capacity to pass left-of-center policies, but by the mainstream press, which mourns these shootings with calls for the parties to set aside their differences and “come together” on the issue.
But there will not be a grand coming-together on guns. The modest reforms on the table, even if passed, would do little to change the outcome of a culture war one side has already won. For all the ranting and raving we have heard from the right in the last few months about the cultural power liberals wield, the values of rural and exurban conservatives plainly govern the country here. It matters not a whit what liberals in cities like Buffalo or Pittsburgh think about living in a country where people are gunned down in stores and synagogues with legal assault weapons. An inescapable reality has been imposed upon them – there are more firearms than people in the United States.
If recent history is any guide, the conversations we are having now about improving the situation at the margins will be drowned out and defeated by noise and nonsense in a matter of days. Arming schoolteachers, outfitting the nearly 100,000 public schools in this country with the kind of trip wires and traps you might see in the next Mission Impossible film – this is the blather of degenerates who know they have already succeeded, who know they have no need for arguments that might convince most Americans. The status quo they defend is being upheld by the deference of Democrats now in a position to upend it.