It just so happens that less than two weeks ago the House passed two bills to require background checks on all gun sales transfers and to create an expanded 10-day review of gun sales. Yet both faced nearly lockstep Republican opposition and will inevitably disappear into the black hole of the GOP Senate filibuster.
At a previously scheduled Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday on this very subject, Republicans were livid at the mere suggestion that we might do something about the thousands of Americans killed with guns every year.
“Every time there’s a shooting, we play this ridiculous theater where this committee gets together and proposes a bunch of laws that would do nothing to stop these murders,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).
But the reason it’s theater is the filibuster. Senators don’t need to consider gun legislation in a serious way, because Republicans can and will kill it no matter what it does or doesn’t do.
Might that finally change? In an interview, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) noted that a confluence of events have come together in a potentially new way.
Democrats control Congress and the White House. President Biden himself was tapped by then-President Barack Obama to lead the failed effort at gun reform after the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary. A stronger and more media-savvy youth movement has been galvanized by school shootings such as the one in Parkland, Fla.
And, perhaps above all else, Democrats are thinking seriously about reforming the filibuster, with Biden himself proclaiming a willingness to contemplate it.
“This time feels different,” Blumenthal told us, citing a “grass-roots movement of unparalleled power, led by a new generation, that’s already produced wins in congressional races, with candidates explicitly advocating for gun violence prevention.”
And, Blumenthal pointed out, the travails of the National Rifle Association show opponents of gun reform “losing their grip on Congress.”
Blumenthal also noted that Biden and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) have both declared an intention to act. Schumer said Tuesday that “the Senate is going to debate and address the epidemic of gun violence in this country.” And Biden urged the House and Senate to “act,” calling for a ban on assault weapons.
History, of course, won’t make you too optimistic. If there were ever a time when it might have happened, it was with the Manchin-Toomey universal background check bill.
That proposal came after the unparalleled horror of Sandy Hook, when 20 children were murdered. It got the support of the reddest of red-state Democrats (Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia) and a Republican from a swing state with many rural gun owners (Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania).
Background checks regularly received the support of more than 80 percent of the public in polls. What’s more, this proposal was even more modest than the one that just passed the House. And it did none of the things that garner more Republican opposition — banning assault weapons, limiting the number of guns people can buy, requiring more stringent licensing.
But not even that could survive the filibuster. It got 54 Senate votes and died because it couldn’t get to the 60-vote supermajority.
Even after this latest shooting, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) quickly signaled GOP opposition. He claimed that he’s “open to the discussion” but immediately said he’d oppose anything that “doesn’t work,” which is what Republicans will say no matter what is proposed, just as Cruz already has.
The big question is whether the pile-up of proposals like this — ones such as gun reform, voting rights protections, climate legislation, etc. — falling victim to the filibuster is finally enough to force Democrats to reform or eliminate it.
Blumenthal told us a new overlap of interests among Democrats might help. The escalation of GOP voter suppression tactics everywhere has focused their minds on the need for sweeping voting rights legislation.
Meanwhile, the gun carnage is mounting. If enough legislation dies at the hands of the filibuster, Blumenthal argued, the pressure could build.
“The combination of voting rights and gun violence and a number of other causes failing simply because of the filibuster is a really powerful argument for filibuster reform,” Blumenthal said.
It has become clear that only with filibuster reform could an actual debate and negotiation take place. Manchin, who says he doesn’t support the House background check bill because it doesn’t have enough of a carve-out for people who know each other, could have his voice heard.
Manchin could negotiate different language and different provisions, and a variety of senators, both Democrat and Republican, could have input until they arrive at a bill that has majority support.
But that can’t happen if Republicans know they can kill a bill on arrival with the filibuster. And changing that will almost certainly require Democrats such as Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to be willing to entertain reform or elimination.
Said Blumenthal: “Some of my colleagues will have to see that it is a precondition that is necessary for progress in so many areas that otherwise will be stymied.”