A dark day in the US Senate

April 18, 2013 

Those family members of the angels of Newtown were appropriately aghast, disgusted and dismayed Wednesday when too many members of the U.S. Senate bowed and kissed the feet of the National Rifle Association and other anti-gun-control lobbyists.

In a disgraceful demonstration of political cowardice, a perfectly reasonable measure to strengthen background checks on gun buyers, a bill to ban assault weapons and another to limit large ammunition clips all failed.

It was a clear sign of the power of fear in senators who think standing up for safer guns laws would bring down the wrath of the NRA come election time, resulting in heavy contributions to opponents and independent negative ads against them. So re-election – holding on to the jobs that are supposed to serve the interests of the people – came before everything.

Oddly, the people, including many gun owners, overwhelmingly have demonstrated in poll after poll an interest in stronger gun control – to the tune of 80 percent to 90 percent in favor of such measures. Even before the December tragedy in Newtown, Conn., in which a lone gunman killed 20 first-graders and six staff members, support for more gun control in the United States was strong. The country has seen too many incidents in recent years caused by people who never should have had guns obtaining them and killing innocent people.

Shame, indeed

North Carolina’s Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, voted for the stronger background checks. Republican Sen. Richard Burr voted no. Both voted against assault weapons bans and curbs on large-capacity ammunition magazines.

Patricia Maisch, who survived the 2011 shooting in a Tucson, Ariz., shopping center that severely wounded then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, had it right when she shouted from the Senate gallery, “Shame on you!” Vice President Joe Biden, presiding, rebuked her but appeared to be reluctant. For her part, Giffords issued a statement immediately after the vote, saying, “Moments ago, the U.S. Senate decided to do the unthinkable about gun violence, nothing.”

This shameful failure was the result of a campaign of lies and fear spread by the gun lobby, which conjured visions of government confiscation. It also fueled all sorts of crazy speculation that requiring better background checks to ensure that some gun buyers are not bent on violent lunacy would destroy the Second Amendment, which the gun lobby uses as a weapon to fight any responsible gun legislation.

The lobby’s form of persuasion with lawmakers isn’t reasoned discussion or negotiation. It’s basically based on threats: Vote our way or we will find a candidate to run against you and pour in whatever it takes to defeat you. We will destroy your political career.

Not over?

Some are immune. Sen. John McCain of Arizona voted for the background check provision sponsored by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. McCain, a former GOP presidential nominee, is a Vietnam hero who spent more than five years in a prison camp and is hardly intimidated by the likes of the NRA.

One wonders whether the gun lobby will pop its buttons with pride that it was able to win out over the horrifying story of Newtown, where 20 children were killed by gunfire, innocents who were just going to school, who had all of their lives ahead of them. A measure such as the one from Manchin and Toomey might not have saved them, but it might have.

Manchin, a gun owner and NRA member, demonstrated in this fight, along with Toomey, a courage of leadership rarely seen, or so it appears, on Capitol Hill anymore. He welcomed the views of the pro-gun-rights lobby. He talked himself out with his colleagues. He spoke in moderate tones about the wisdom, the reason, of what he and Toomey were trying to do. He appeared on conservative and liberal television programs.

And when it was over, he refused to surrender, promising that his fight for responsible background check legislation is not over, that he intends to seek more votes.

Let us hope so, for the sake of the angels of Newtown.

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