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March 28, 2013 1:39 pm
There will probably be some form of gun control law passed by Congress some time this year, but it will not amount to much, merely a series of useful if palliative measures. It is worth asking why is this so, just months after the Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre horrified the nation.
Inevitably, some will ascribe blame to the lack of leadership from the White House, as if that can solve all problems at a stroke. Others will pin it on the political clout and money of the National Rifle Association, whose campaign against gun control has been toxic even by its usual repellent standards, even to the point of suggesting that if the First Family gets armed secret service protection then so should every school child in the country. Its orchestrated attacks on Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, the most visible advocate on the other side, have been equally nasty.
But I am going to lay a lot of it at the feet of the Democratic senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader in the Senate, who gets to decide what his chamber will consider. And his ruling was that whatever omnibus bill emerged out of its judiciary committee would not include the most contentious issues: reinstating the ban on the sale of assault rifles and putting strict limits on the capacity of gun magazines. They can be offered as separate amendments, which makes them next to impossible to pass in the current climate.
This does not mean Mr Reid is in the pocket of the NRA, though he has long been a supporter of the right to bear arms. It does reflect that he is not only a leader but also a servant of the Democratic party and, as such, puts the retention of its majority in next year’s mid-term elections on a higher plane than safety in schools and on the streets.
That may be sad, but political priorities are often thus, and he has reason to be concerned about next year. Twice as many Democratic-held seats have to be defended as Republican ones and incumbent retirements are coming thick and fast, this week’s latest being Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota, a state which, by most yardsticks, should be Republican anyway. The current 54-46 Democratic edge must look awfully thin to him.
That, of course, was true in the last two elections but the Republicans insisted on putting up loony, unelectable candidates in states they should have won. That could happen again next year, which alarms party luminaries such as Karl Rove, who has proposed some form of vetting procedure to keep the true barbarians away from the candidate gates. But even George W. Bush’s maestro cannot simply wish away the Republican incumbent fear of being “primaried” by the unwashed hordes of the Tea Party.
It so happens that the most vulnerable Democratic seats, such as Mr Johnson’s, are in mostly rural states where hunting is a passion and gun rights sentiment runs strong. (Though why anybody needs what amounts to a machine gun to bring down a deer remains a mystery to me; it is, after all, hardly sporting.)
Still, Mr Reid required some guts to take the action he did. It brought him an open break with a valued colleague, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who heads the judiciary committee and had painstakingly steered an omnibus bill to the cusp of consideration before he gutted it.
She has her own history with gun violence. In 1978, when serving on San Francisco city council, she was first on the scene to discover the bodies of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the gay icon, shot to death by Dan White, a former supervisor who wanted his job back. Her rage at Mr Reid was conspicuous by her usual mild-mannered standards.
Still, such is the way of Washington that even a modest bill, including tightened background checks on gun buyers, stiffer penalties for “straw purchasers” and provisions to make mental health records more widely available, will be heralded as progress of sorts. And I suppose there is always a chance that one of the tougher amendments might pass the Senate, though it surely never would the House of Representatives.
If tough gun control was ever to come to pass, it had to be when Newtown was fresh in the mind. The more time has passed, the more other issues surface and the frequency of Congress going off on holidays, the less likely it became. The NRA knew this, just as did Mr Reid.
It does not have to be like this. The political firmament has changed on comprehensive immigration reform, a non-starter as recently as last year, because the Republican party has realised that continued opposition to it is a self-inflicted death sentence. In comparison, the deaths caused by easy access to powerful guns are a minor matter.
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