The failure to pass firearms legislation in the U.S. Senate in April is yet one more illustration that politics in Washington, D.C., has become so dysfunctional that the federal government no longer seems capable of solving great problems. Even in the aftermath of the horrible murders of schoolchildren and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the U.S. Senate was unable to agree on a single measure, not one, to help prevent firearms-related injuries and deaths.
It is not just firearms, though. Washington is paralyzed in coping with the federal deficit and debt fueled by unsustainable Medicare and Medicaid spending, destructive budget cuts to essential programs, a flawed and costly medical liability system, a broken Medicare payment system, a growing shortage of physicians, a failed immigration system—the list goes on and on. I can't recall a time when political paralysis has been worse, and I've been in this line of work for more than three decades.
Why do we find ourselves in this sad state of affairs? The answer falls into three categories. One is the self-imposed institutional and structural problems that impede the effectiveness of our system of government: filibusters, gerrymandering and the outsized influence of moneyed interests. The second is the disgraceful nature of political discourse today—the routine and accepted use of rhetorical excesses and hyperbole, straw men and slippery-slope arguments, misuse of studies and statistics, and distortions and outright lies to win an argument, truth be damned. The third requires a look in the mirror, because we the voters continue to elect politicians who refuse to compromise.
All of these factors were on display with the Senate vote on firearms.
Self-imposed institutional problems. A majority of senators voted for a bipartisan bill to expand background checks on firearms, which would have closed loopholes that allow convicted felons to buy guns over the Internet and at gun shows. But because of the now routine abuse of Senate rules to require 60 votes to pass just about anything, the measure failed. Many of the senators who voted no feared having negative ads run against them by the well-funded gun lobby.
Even if the measure had made it out of the Senate, it would have had a very rough time in the House of Representatives, where most members have been gerrymandered into “safe” districts of voters that share their ideology and politics, with their only worry being challenged in a primary by an even more ideologically pure candidate from their party's extremes. Especially in the House, there are few if any centrists left who have to appeal to voters outside their own party in order to win reelection.
Disgraceful discourse. Opponents of background checks made the blatantly false argument that the bill would have created a national registry of firearms owners, when the bill expressly prohibited such a registry. They made the slick “slippery-slope” argument that background checks would later lead to government confiscation of legal guns from law-abiding owners, even though they know that current firearms laws and, even more important, the Second Amendment do not permit the government to confiscate legally purchased firearms. (Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment establishes an individual right to firearms ownership.)
Opponents engaged in the straw-man argument that government was trying to deny lawful people the right to defend themselves, when all the bill would have done is run background checks on guns sold online or at gun shows to keep them away from people found to be dangerous in a court of law, the same restrictions that now apply to all guns purchased by from a licensed dealer. They said that background checks don't work, even though the current background check system, despite the loopholes, stopped an estimated 1.5 million convicted felons from getting guns over the past 14 years, going back to when the current background check system became law.
We the voters. Multiple, reliable polls show that 80% to 90% of the public, and equal percentages of firearms owners, favor universal background checks. Yet most of us allowed our voices to be drowned out by a passionate minority who inundated senators with objections to the measure. We the voters are the ones who have made compromise a dirty word in Washington—threatening to vote out any member of Congress who isn't in lockstep with the most extreme ideological views within their own party. Many of the senators who voted against background checks were motivated by fear that any deviance from the National Rifle Association's “no compromise” ideology would have cost them their reelection through primary challenges, even though most of their constituents favored background checks.
You don't need to take my word for how the firearms vote showed the worst of Washington, and maybe of us. Former U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords, who was grievously injured by a shooter outside a grocery store in Arizona in 2011, wrote this in the New York Times:”They [the senators who voted against background checks] will try to hide their decision behind grand talk, behind willfully false accounts of what the bill might have done—trust me, I know how politicians talk when they want to distract you—but their decision was based on a misplaced sense of self-interest. I say misplaced, because to preserve their dignity and their legacy, they should have heeded the voices of their constituents. They should have honored the legacy of the thousands of victims of gun violence and their families, who have begged for action, not because it would bring their loved ones back, but so that others might be spared their agony.”
They should have, but they didn't.
This will change—not just for firearms but for the other pressing issues facing our country—only if voters demand political reforms to change the institutional barriers to getting things done, including reform of Senate filibuster rules and the practice of gerrymandering politicians into ideologically pure districts. It will change only if we hold politicians and interest groups accountable for the accuracy of the arguments they make and reject claims that rely on straw men, hyperbole and slippery-slope conjecture. It will change only if we elect politicians who understand that solving big problems requires big compromises, instead of insisting on ideological purity from those we put in office. It will change only if we ourselves engage in the political process on the issues we care about, including preventing firearms from getting into the wrong hands, as passionately as the motivated minority who stand in the way.