The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Our gun epidemic is a symptom of our broken democracy

Flags fly at half-staff at Liberty State Park in Jersey City on May 25 in recognition of victims of the May 24 school shooting in Uvalde, Tex. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
4 min

Our hearts are broken because our democracy is broken.

Again, we face a preventable tragedy for which a possible solution was rendered impossible not by a lack of democratic will but by the confluence of two factors: An extreme, irrational party that has rejected democratic principles, and a constitutional structure that is ill-equipped to deal with it.

The sole reason there has been no meaningful gun-control legislation following the shootings at schools in Parkland, Fla., or Newtown, Conn., is the GOP’s adamant refusal to cross the gun lobby and its extremist base. Already awash with guns, the country has instead witnessed a further relaxation of reasonable gun restrictions. Age limits have been lowered. Gun licensing requirements have been repealed. Gun owners have been allowed to carry concealed weapons.

This is gun fetish run amok. Republican politicians pose with weapons of war in campaign ads and shoot at whatever object can be most dramatically destroyed. No sane society would permit this.

If there is one policy issue that unites Americans, it is support for background checks, red-flag laws and other reasonable gun safety provisions. But Republicans refuse even modest restrictions to reduce the lethality of weapons. To call themselves “pro-life” is an insult to the memory of dead children killed by firearms.

And here is where our constitutional checkmate works against even the widest democratic consensus imaginable: The Constitution allocates two senators to the most sparsely populated red states (but none to the District of Columbia), and the filibuster provides gun absolutists with a veto over reforms.

Rubin: Don't let Republicans off the hook for enabling gun violence

If this were only true on guns, one might be able to make an argument in favor of the present system. But the result is the same for a range on matters, including abortion, immigration, climate change and virtually any other mildly controversial topic. The rigid GOP parlays the anti-democratic Senate and filibuster into an iron grip of minority rule. When legislation on nearly every critical issue can be thwarted by an extreme minority, we have “democracy” in name only.

President Biden has made clear that democracy is at risk not only from racist, extreme elements that undermine democratic elections, but also by the inability to “get things done.” The solutions to our democratic crisis are not quick, easy or obvious.

If the Democratic Party — the only party that still supports democratic values and at least tries to solve problems — can muster the discipline and the will, it can run in 2022 and 2024 on ending the stranglehold of unhinged, minority rule. It must electrify its supporters, pledge to tame if not eliminate the filibuster and make clear that, without Democratic victories, we would face an America few would hope to bequeath their children. The Republican obsession with controlling women, unlimited gun ownership, white grievance and other deadly ideologies must be identified, denounced and defeated. Democrats should be clear about the choices: white nationalism or tolerance; gun massacres or reasonable gun restrictions; control of women’s bodies or respect for women’s autonomy.

Democrats should not rule out solutions that are immediately available. Remember, Republicans spent decades creating a Supreme Court that would destroy decades of precedent and impose its partisan will on the rest of the country. Democrats must seed the political ground not only for this election cycle but for the future. Constitutional amendments may be far-fetched now, but Democrats can initiate the debate on them. They can also move on other structural fixes, such as campaign finance reforms and limitations on lifetime tenure for Supreme Court justices.

As Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson famously said, the Constitution is not a suicide pact. Every conceivable legal and constitutional reform must be on the table. We need not accept the slaughter of children, the debasement of women, the erosion of pluralism or other aspects of the Republican agenda.