Hearts and prayers are not enough: Congress must act now to combat gun violence

Another shooting, this time on a Brooklyn subway, and everything remains the same.

Same “Breaking News” urgently flashing on my screen. Same images on the news; same reports by journalists with few details to report. Although in this case, I come upon one difference: the breaking voice of a WNBC News journalist as he reveals that his own children live in the neighborhood of the shooting.

But other than that, it’s all the same. Same images of injured people, sprawled on the ground; same rising numbers of casualties (five reported at 11 a.m., 13 at 11:30, 16 at 12:25); same yellow crime scene tape; same swarm of stenciled windbreakers converging on the scene (NYPD, MTA, FBI, DHS, ATF); same politicians gathering in front of a nest of microphones – good people, well intentioned people, I believe – saying the same things we’ve heard for decades. Hearts and prayers and condolences. 

And the same shaking of our own heads and tightening of our own throats before we move on, expelling it with the flick of a thumb against the remote or a computer link.   

It’s the longest running rerun in American media. We’ve been in jeopardy longer than “Jeopardy.”

Everything is the same, which is another way of saying that nothing will change. We’ll keep seeing it, reporting on it, absorbing it, processing it, wincing from it, moving past it. We’ll keep tolerating political leaders who offer hearts and prayers but vote against any sensible gun safety legislation.

How is that possible, people ask? Why, if 80 percent of Americans support commonsense gun safety, is Congress paralyzed? Why, if people are dying every day, is there no action? According to the National Gun Violence Archive, in only the first 98 days of 2022, gun violence has caused 5,149 deaths (involving homicide, murder and unintentional acts); 6,732 suicides; 9,441 injuries; and 131 mass shootings. Eighty-four children under the age of 11 have been murdered. Think of it this way: your kid multiplied by eighty-four.

Why?

The answer came to me one day on Capitol Hill, as my colleagues and I packed into one of those Members Only elevators for a series of votes on the floor of the House. We had spent hours in the Appropriations Committee, debating various gun safety amendments: strengthened background checks, “no-fly-no-buy.” The proposals were, well, shot down by a combination of hardcore ideology and soft political expediency. On that elevator, one member was sharing his remorse for voting against each amendment.

I told him I didn’t understand. I’d seen the polls, and the policies had the support of 80 percent of his constituents. 

True, he responded. But it was the 20 percent that would defeat him in a primary that worried him.

The truth hurts, and in some cases, it kills. 

It’s called voter intensity — that one issue that whips up energy against an incumbent in a tight race. Congressional redistricting and the consolidation of the bases of both political parties, among other factors, have pulled districts further left and further right. Which means districts have become safer but far more ideological. 

As a result, most members fear losing their election not to the opposite party but in a primary challenge from someone more extreme than themselves. And a litmus test for conservative voters even in moderate districts is guns. Anything less than absolute fealty to the gun lobby is an invitation to a primary challenge.

Face it, the gun lobby is more powerful than a speeding bullet. And so, the incumbent survives the next primary. And the next one and the one after. 

Those 5,149 killed in murders, homicides and accidents? Not so lucky.

Several years ago, I tried to explain it all in a book, written from the inside of Congress. “Big Guns” was decently received by the critics, not so much by booksellers. During my book tour, an NPR interviewer, in that “holier than thou” intonation, shared that the book was too cynical. She was irked that it didn’t have a happy ending, a swift and clean resolution. (You know, like Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer holding hands at a bill-signing ceremony for universal background checks under a soft pink sky in the Rose Garden). She insisted that surely, at some point, Congress would do something. It had to!

It hasn’t.

Turns out, the book wasn’t satire after all. It was more non-fiction than fiction. A commentary that Congress will change nothing, until we change Congress. Or stop the politically incendiary practice of drawing districts so that the loud but narrow ideologues drown-out the broad center. Or match pro-gun lobby voter intensity with anti-gun-lobby voter intensity.

Until then, expect more of the same. Sure, my heart and prayers go to the people felled by bullets in Brooklyn. But a law putting at least a dent in this carnage would be a hell of a lot more useful.  

Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now director of the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy Institute of Politics and Global Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael. 

Tags gun violence mass shooting New York City Subway shooting

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