State Watch

The Memo: ‘Gated political thinking’ thwarts progress on guns

Horrific mass shootings in Texas and New York within the past two weeks have fueled a new public outcry for gun reform. 

But even Democrats admit that, when it comes to federal action, this time might not be different from all those that have gone before.

Measures to enact even modest gun reforms have run aground for years on Capitol Hill.

There is another push underway now, after 21 people, including 19 children, were shot dead in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday. The tragedy came only 10 days after 10 people were killed in a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y. 

Advocates for change note the overwhelming public support for some proposals, such as universal background checks — and the visceral horror so many Americans feel at every new mass killing.

But they aren’t sure much will change in the short term.

The gun debate “is one of the worst cases of special interest politics and, frankly, conservative political thinking and gated political thinking — and it’s keeping our system from responding to what the voters want,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who worked with President Biden’s 2020 campaign and now conducts polling for the Democratic National Committee, among others.

Lake argued that there has been a default position whereby members of Congress believe they are culturally in sync with their constituents when they oppose gun reform measures.

But when politicians take that position, she asserted, “you’re not communicating you are in touch with voters. You’re communicating that you are a politician.”

The political reality is that the events in Texas and Buffalo do not change the legislative math — specifically, the need for 60 votes in a Senate that is split 50-50 between the parties.

Most Republicans are opposed to gun control, so the question is whether a sufficient number might break with that orthodoxy. It’s far from certain.

“It is just hard to see Democrats getting to 60. That’s a fifth of the Republicans in the Senate you have to pry off,” said Todd Belt, a professor and program director at the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

There are some modest efforts underway to see if a bipartisan deal can be struck.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a leading proponent of gun reforms, is leading a group said to comprise 10 senators, five from each party. 

They are working toward some form of expanded background checks and might also be able to advance so-called red flag laws, which enable police or family members to petition a judge to remove firearms from a person who is perceived to be at risk of committing violence.

The group includes Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who sponsored legislation almost a decade ago that would have strengthened background checks. Their push, sparked by the late 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in which 20 young children and six adults were killed, failed. 

The Manchin-Toomey proposal did, in fact, get majority support — 54 votes in favor, 46 against — but that was six votes short of the number needed for it to advance in the Senate. Manchin has in recent days reiterated his long-standing opposition to abolishing or reforming the filibuster.

“The problem of gun violence is too pressing, too great and too horrific to let a procedural tool like the filibuster stand in the ways of policies that 90 percent of Americans support,” said Christian Heyne, vice president of policy with Brady, an organization that works to reduce gun violence.

Noting that the House passed two pieces of legislation on guns last year, Heyne said, “The last place where change hasn’t taken root in the entire country is the floor of the United States Senate. That is going to be the last challenge we need to overcome.”

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has been decidedly cool about any kinds of gun reform measures, even as he has expressed horror at the events in Texas.

On Thursday, McConnell said he had encouraged Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) to get involved in bipartisan talks. But McConnell emphasized in his remarks that he wanted any outcome to be “directly related to the facts of this awful massacre” and “crafted to meet this particular problem.”

While McConnell did not spell out exactly what he meant, those words sounded like an allusion to school security or perhaps mental health provisions — measures that Republicans are more likely to favor than gun reform. 

Republicans are loath to be seen as infringing on gun rights and also argue that restrictive gun laws will not be a panacea for shootings.

The failure to enact even incremental gun reform measures is perplexing to millions of Americans, however, especially given the apparently overwhelming public support for some proposals.

A Quinnipiac University poll last year, for example, indicated that 89 percent of Americans, including 84 percent of Republican voters, support universal background checks.

The same poll found strong support for red flag laws, with 74 percent support; and a slimmer majority, 52 percent, in favor of an assault weapons ban.

Democrats with long memories recall that their party’s support for a 1994 assault weapons ban was blamed by some for sweeping losses in that year’s midterm elections — though the causal link between the two matters is hotly disputed.

Murphy, in an interview earlier this month — after the shooting in Buffalo but before the attack on the elementary school in Uvalde — told The New York Times, “My worry is that a lot of my colleagues still believe in the mythology of 1994, when everyone thought Democrats lost Congress over the assault weapons ban. That’s not true — that’s not why Congress flipped. Ever since then, Democrats are under the illusion that it’s a losing issue for us.”

Biden noted, during his first public remarks on the Texas tragedy, that after the assault weapons ban expired in 2004, mass shootings tripled.

For the moment, the main political focus is on the more modest measures — even amid the current spate of carnage.

“Babies are dying,” Democratic strategist Donna Brazile told this column.

“This time, the deflection by Republicans accusing Democrats of trying to take away the guns of law-abiding citizens must not work. Let’s start from points of agreement on background checks, state-by-state red flag laws and see if we can move on to banning assault rifles for people under [21].”

For now, there’s no certainty that even those first steps will be taken.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Biden Buffalo shootings Celinda Lake Charles Schumer Chris Murphy Chris Murphy Gun control Joe Manchin Mitch McConnell Mitch McConnell Texas school shooting
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