I have had a long career in government and politics, but I don’t donate heavily to political campaigns. When I contribute, it’s because I know the candidate well or am really impressed with the person. Heidi Heitkamp was one of the latter: She struck me as strong-willed, principled and an independent thinker.
But this week, Heitkamp betrayed those hopes.
She voted to block legislation to make gun background checks more comprehensive. Her vote — along with those of 41 Republicans and three other Democrats — was a key reason the measure fell short of the 60 votes needed for passage.
Polling has shown that nine in 10 Americans and eight in 10 gun owners support a law to require every buyer to go through a background check on every gun sale. In North Dakota, the support was even higher: 94 percent. Yet in explaining her vote, Heitkamp had the gall to say that she “heard overwhelmingly from the people of North Dakota” and had to listen to them and vote no. It seems more likely that she heard from the gun lobby and chose to listen to it instead.
Here in Chicago, we know how serious a problem gun violence is. Over Easter weekend, 25 people were shot in Chicago. Last year, more than 400 young people were shot in our city. Our mayor and police are working tirelessly to fight gun crime; over the past decade, the Chicago Police Department has taken 50,000 guns off the streets. But illegal gun traffickers don’t respect state lines, and easy access to firearms in other states helps fuel gun violence in Chicago.
Instead of getting help from Washington, 45 senators seem determined to make it easy for criminals to get guns, no questions asked.
And the truth is that gun violence is not just some big-city, blue-state problem. Which state has the country’s highest rate of death by gun? Alaska.
Yet both Alaska senators — Democrat Mark Begich and Republican Lisa Murkowski — voted against expanding background checks to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and those so mentally ill that they are a danger to themselves or others.
The other two Democrats who voted against background checks are Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Max Baucus of Montana. Like Begich, they will be running for reelection next year. And no doubt they’ll come to Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and other cities looking for money to fuel their campaigns. These cities, of course, are also too often the destination for illegal guns flowing in from out of state.
So I’ll have some advice for my friends in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles: Just say no to the Democrats who said no on background checks.
I understand that the gun lobby appears powerful. But I wish our U.S. senators could show half the courage of Pat Maisch, the hero from the mass shooting in Tucson in January 2011 that left six people dead and 18 others injured, including Gabby Giffords, then a member of Congress. Pat jumped in and wrestled the magazine out of Jared Loughner’s hands before he could reload. She is also the person who stood up in the Senate gallery after Wednesday’s vote and admonished the senators: “Shame on you.”
She’s right. It’s shameful when politicians put what they perceive is their own interest or that of some lobbying group ahead of what the great mass of the American people want.
For all those in Washington who disappointed the people on Wednesday, there were also some real heroes in the Senate. My hometown senators, Mark Kirk and Dick Durbin, were statesmen. Kirk, a Republican, not only voted for universal background checks but he also voted to ban assault weapons — a measure quite a few Democrats wouldn’t even touch. Other heroes include Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey, the senators with the A ratings from the National Rifle Association who fashioned the compromise on background checks. They stuck their necks out.
When I think about the Democrats I will focus on supporting in 2014, Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.) and Kay Hagan (N.C.) will be at the top of my list. Both represent states where Republicans typically have an advantage and where there is a long and deep tradition of gun ownership. Both had the wisdom to understand that making it harder for criminals to get guns protects, rather than endangers, the rights of responsible, law-abiding gun owners.