The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Democrats can address our hopelessness about child massacres

A girl cries, comforted by two adults, in Uvalde, Tex. (Allison Dinner/AFP/Getty Images)
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By now, the pattern has become distressing in part because of its crushing familiarity. After yet another mass shooting, Democrats call for gun-safety measures. Republicans signal willingness to do something extremely modest or denounce the idea of acting at all. It becomes clear there aren’t enough Senate votes to overcome a GOP filibuster.

Democrats rage at Republicans and the system for failing to act. Republicans attack Democrats for wanting to act merely for the sake of acting. Nothing happens — until the next shooting.

But what if Democrats laid out clearly what a specific pathway to action might look like, if voters will it to be so?

After 19 children were murdered by an 18-year-old gunman in a Texas school on Tuesday, President Biden raged at our paralysis, asking: “Why do we keep letting this happen?”

Yet again, anger at inaction has itself become part of the post-mass-shooting ritual. As they always do, Democrats are insisting public grief and rage might move Republicans this time. But they all know it won’t happen, and this further reinforces the sense of helplessness: Why would it be different this time? Democrats don’t say, because they can’t.

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Another way forward would entail stating with crystal clarity what would happen if voters elected two or three more Democratic senators: They could vow to end the filibuster and pass gun-safety laws (among other things) immediately in the next Congress.

Right now, the filibuster might be the greatest obstacle to action. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has initiated the process on two bills that would strengthen and tighten the federal background check system. Both passed the House but died in the Senate.

There are likely 50 Senate votes to pass something like this, given that Sen. Joe Manchin III supports action to fix the background check system. But the West Virginia Democrat has already said he won’t suspend the filibuster to pass anything.

Yet just about all Democrats running for Senate in places such as Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Ohio support ending or substantially reforming the filibuster. If Democrats net two seats — difficult but not impossible — there would be 50 votes to change the rules and pass some form of gun-safety legislation.

This doesn’t mean giving up on action right now. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) has restarted talks with Republicans on a proposal that would close a loophole in the system that allows some sellers to avoid performing background checks.

That idea has some Republican support. Murphy wants to pair this with something like a “red flag” law keeping guns away from people flagged as dangerous, which also has some GOP backing.

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“I think the odds are stacked against us getting a deal done,” Murphy told me, speaking about whether 10 GOP senators might back such a compromise. “But it’s not impossible.” The bills introduced by Schumer could provide a vehicle for such a proposal and start Senate debate on it.

Such a deal would fall short of universal background checks, but it’s worth doing. Yet if Republicans do kill this, they’ll surely argue that the deal wouldn’t have prevented mass shootings like the ones in Texas or in Buffalo earlier this month, where 10 victims were slaughtered at a supermarket.

But the goal here would be to address gun violence much more broadly. Mass shootings are a reminder of a terrible problem that extends far beyond these high-profile horrors, and on that front, we are a wretched international outlier by all kinds of metrics.

So for now, if Republicans can be induced into a productive debate over how to chip away at that bigger problem, let’s do it. Four GOP senators voted for a background check bill after the Sandy Hook massacre of 20 children in 2012, but it was filibustered. We shouldn’t give up on growing that number.

“Parents and kids are scared to death right now,” Murphy told me. “Part of their anxiety is because they don’t see Congress giving a crap.”

“To address the darkness that exists in this country, we have to show that we’re willing to move in the right direction,” Murphy continued.

Yet this public anxiety also underscores why Democrats should be clearer on what a specific path to success might look like if Republicans kill any compromise. Democrats should tell voters they have recourse.

Here’s yet another reason to do this: because this sense of paralysis might stem from something that runs deep in our system.

Political scientist Francis Fukuyama has argued that such inaction is rooted in a form of “political decay.” This decay flows from complex processes that include interest-group capture and the entrenchment of patterns in our institutions that constrain them from keeping pace with evolving problems.

Fukuyama says this concept of political decay applies to the current moment. The Senate’s malapportioned representation constrains action supported by popular majorities (but opposed by powerful interests) to deal with increasingly pressing problems such as gun violence.

The adherence to the antiquated filibuster makes it even worse. As Fukuyama told me, it “adds to the stasis of the system.” We’re suffering from “the entrenching of a kind of anti-majoritarian rule that can’t be fixed,” he said, and the system isn’t responding to its “need to evolve.”

But to the degree that change is possible, why don’t Democrats try telling voters who are despairing and hopeless about our system that there is a way they can move it?