You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Fatal Fatalism

Stop making excuses for senators. Start blaming them.

Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla

Barely had the legislation to expand background checks for gun purchases fallen short of the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster than the crowing started on the right. And soon afterward came the equally predictable reaction in the mainstream media and on the left: jaded fatalism. The legislation never stood a chance in the face of the all-powerful NRA. The Obama administration had lost precious political capital on the issue. Even before the vote, some of my own colleagues were arguing it was a big waste of time and effort.

If you are someone who believes that a country where 40,000 people are killed by firearms every year needs to reform its gun laws, this kind of rationalization and detachment is terribly destructive. It validates obstructionism, allowing the undemocratic rein of the filibuster to carry on without even forcing senators to go on the record as nays. It demoralizes supporters, who are asked to accept that even a galvanizing horror like Newtown must be set aside. It muddies the historical record and exaggerates the legend of the gun lobby—the fact is, plenty of senators in red or purple states have bucked the NRA over the years and lived to tell the tale. And it undercuts broader public support. It’s no accident that polls showed a decline in backing for stricter gun control over most of the past decade as most Democrats spoke of the issue in hushed tones; Americans like winners—treat an issue like a political loser and it’ll remain one.

But the worst thing about such fatalism, in the moment we now find ourselves, is that it lets off the hook the elected officials who had the opportunity to make a substantive improvement to our gun laws—making sure that buyers at gun shows and in most other private sales undergo a background check for criminal records or mental health illness, just as they do at dealerships—and ducked. Yes, the NRA is a fiendishly effective lobby. Yes, as I have written many times, the Senate is an astonishingly undemocratic institution where states smaller than a typical House district get two votes each, same as all others. Yes, the noxious tyranny of the filibuster sets a very high bar for passage.

Still: Yesterday afternoon, 100 senators had a choice to make, and 45 of them chose one way, and 55 another. Joe Manchin comes from a state that is so pro-gun that he thought it a good idea to be shown firing a gun at climate-change legislation for a campaign ad; yet he led the way in forging the background-check bill. Kay Hagan and Mary Landrieu are both up for reelection next year in states that Barack Obama lost last fall, and yet they voted for the bill. Jon Tester and Tim Johnson hail from the great wide open of the Great Plains, where guns, we are told, are as routine as toothpicks, and they voted for the bill.

In contrast to them stand the four Democrats who blocked the bill: Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas (who was no NRA favorite to begin with, with a C- rating), and Max Baucus of Montana, for whom the pressures of the 2014 reelection campaign they all face was apparently more overwhelming than they were for Hagan and Landrieu; and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who is not even up for reelection for another five years. In his postmortem, Jonathan Chait argued that their reluctance was understandable: “Would you like to be the red state Democrat explaining to voters that your B+ grade on guns is only because you supported criminal background checks? I wouldn’t.” Really? Would making that basic point to your constituents, that you supported a measured step that polling shows nearly everyone favors, really be so trying? It implies an awfully low estimation of the intelligence of one’s fellow Montanans or North Dakotans to think that they could not grasp the limited nature of the reform one supported—a lower estimation, certainly, than Manchin and Hagan and Tester have of their constituents. Chait goes on to argue that the bill would likely have been defeated in the House, or at least further weakened: “Red state Democrats were being asked to assume a large political risk for a small and quite likely nonexistent policy gain. If I were one of them, I’d have voted no, too.” Maybe, maybe not. Who’s to know what pressure Senate passage would have brought on the House, where only 17 Republicans would be needed for passage, if all Democrats were ayes. And again, if closing the gun-show loophole was such a “small policy gain,” would it really have been that hard for red-state Democrats to explain away the NRA’s accusations of betrayal over the vote? 

Chait is right on this much: The onus shouldn’t be solely on the red-state Democrats. After all, if every one of them had voted, it would still have fallen just shy of 60. Yes, that may have put more pressure on some more Republicans to flip. But it’s not proper that we should be expecting reasonableness from Senate Republicans only once we reach that magical near-60 threshold. If Pat Toomey, an arch-conservative from a state that famously clings to its guns, can take the lead on crafting the background-check legislation, why is it so inconceivable to expect that the more moderate Republican from next door, Rob Portman, would support it? Or Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, relative moderates in the current landscape, who represent Memphis, a city with extraordinary gun violence? 

Or Kelly Ayotte. I first met New Hampshire’s junior senator when she was a young assistant attorney general, prosecuting a 1998 trial I was covering for the Concord Monitor, the brutal rape and murder of a 6-year-old girl. Ayotte was very effective, bringing a mix of steely resolve and barely-contained emotion to her questioning and closing statement, which was such a big moment for her that her father came to the courtroom to watch it. A couple years later, I saw her in action again—now as the attorney general overseeing the murder of two Dartmouth professors. Again, she excelled, setting herself up as a law-and-order Republican candidate for governor. 

Wednesday, that law-and-order Republican voted to maintain a glaring loophole in the law that seeks to prevent felons from obtaining firearms, saying the legislation would "place unnecessary burdens on law-abiding gun owners and allow for potential overreach by the federal government into private gun sales." Her fellow Republican just to the east, Susan Collins, chose otherwise. Like the other 44 nays, Ayotte must be held to account for her decision, rather than seeing it float off, scot free, in a fog of blithe liberal resignation. 

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis