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The haunting reason Congress won’t pass sensible gun laws

President Joe Biden speaks about the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, from the White House
Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press
President Joe Biden speaks about the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, from the White House.

In one of those Capitol Hill elevators reserved for Members of Congress when there are votes on the House floor, I learned a tragic lesson about why Congress has not – and likely will not – pass sensible legislation to reduce gun violence in America. The lesson came harshly, chillingly. It haunts me today, as the casualties from a rural Texas elementary school increase with every flash of “breaking news.”

Up to that moment, I believed there would be a time when the killings and injuries would shock the conscience of the Congress, compelling it, shaming it to pass even a modest bill to strengthen background checks.

When the news broke in December 2012 that 26 people had been massacred at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut (20 between six and seven years old), and I watched President Obama weep in the White House, I said to myself, “Now things will change.” They didn’t change.

When a white-supremacist terrorist murdered in cold blood nine people during Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., I believed, “Now we will act.” We didn’t act.

Shortly after 17 students and staff were gunned down at a high school in Parkland, Fla., in 2018, I spoke at a rally in my hometown to thousands of young people and their parents – Republicans, Democrats, independents – who’d filled the large parking lot of the Huntington Town Hall to demand change. I thought to myself, “Now it’s different. Now Congress will listen.” I told the crowd: “Usually parents bring their children into the voting booth to show them what democracy looks like. Now, if children bring their parents to the polls, and demand change, it will happen.” Nothing happened.

When Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) announced their support for bipartisan legislation to keep guns out of the hands of criminals in 2019, I thought it would surely bring both sides of the aisle together. I’m still waiting.

Now, again. The same “breaking news” across our screens and tablets. The same yellow crime tape and press conferences behind nests of microphones. The tweets offering the same thoughts and prayers. The same quavering voices from the pundits and political commentary based on moral anguish but not much else. 

“When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?” President Biden asks. It echoes his predecessors, as far back as President Nixon, who contemplated a ban on handguns. (On May 16, 1972, the day after a would-be assassin paralyzed George Wallace, Nixon said, “I know the rifle association will be against it, the gun makers will be against it…[but] people should not have handguns.”

Why, you ask? What will it take?

The answer was revealed in that Members-Only elevator. The Members-Only part is important — no press, no staff, no constituents. We had just completed a series of votes in an Appropriations Committee markup of funding for the Department of Justice. My fellow Democrats and I had proposed language to allow for strengthened background checks, to ban people who are on the “No Fly” list from easily obtaining military-style assault weapons and similar measures. Each amendment was defeated in a largely party-line vote. The criminals have all the arms they want; we walked away empty handed.

In the elevator, a friend – a pleasant, reasonable, moderate Republican – complained that the votes were politically motivated — forcing members in swing districts to choose between their pro-gun bases and more moderate constituents. I argued that the polling in districts like his was clear: Nearly 80 percent support for the very measures he’d just voted against, including a majority (back then, at least) of Republicans.

Then came the news. He admitted that despite personally supporting the measures, he had no choice but to vote against them. In a heavily polarized House, where districts were increasingly ruby red versus bright blue, any vote for any gun safety would invite a primary opponent and ignite his likely defeat. No issue, he told me, motivated his base more intensely than guns. Moderates would forgive and forget that he voted against background checks; but his base would never forgive him for voting for them.

I thought about that and devoted the next two years to writing a book trying to elaborate on that elevator conversation. It developed into a political parody of the power of the gun lobby called “Big Guns.” I’ll never forget being interviewed about the book by one of those haughty NPR analysts. She told me on-air that she didn’t care for the book because it was too cynical; it didn’t resolve with a solution to gun violence. She wanted a book in which Republicans and Democrats would be so moved by the carnage and death that they’d hold hands and wander into the sunshine of legislative achievement. But that would be the worst kind of fiction: a deceit of the reader.

“Big Guns” meant to criticize not just Congress but you, dear reader. Your heart brakes with the grizzly news of the massacre of America’s children. But it will mend. It will mend as quickly as you click to another story; turn the page of the newspaper; see the next flash breaking news about Ukraine, gas prices, Trump. Time will pass. 

But be assured that it will break again when the next school, church, nightclub, park or movie theater explodes in gunfire and the bodies collapse and the crime scene tape is put up in America’s longest running television rerun. The cycle repeats: shock, grieve, forget, shock, grieve, forget.

That congressman in the elevator had you all figured out. You forgive and forget too easily. And by doing so, you keep electing people who care more about surviving the next primary than they do about the survival of your kids in their classrooms. 

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 Background checks gun control Gun control gun violence Joe Biden National Rifle Association Obama Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting Texas school shooting Uvalde shooting

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