Last week’s defeat in the Senate of gun control legislation has prompted plenty of editorial comment, most of it dealing with either the worthiness or public popularity of the fallen bill. This newspaper’s view of the wisdom of expanded background checks — the heart of the measure — has been expressed previously, and need not be revisited. But there is much else revealed in the bill’s defeat that is worth comment, almost all of it unrelated to the merits of the proposal itself, and all of it condemnatory to the political process.
These elements, all of them probably true, should not be under-emphasized or overlooked.
1. The bill failed because it was “scored.” Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat and co-sponsor, noted the National Rifle Association’s decision to use the vote as a basis for determining who to support for re-election in 2014. In other words, Manchin (probably correctly) contended, several senators opposed a bill whose merits they believed in because they feared for their political futures if they did what they thought right. Such an action is the opposite of statesmanship.
2. The bill failed because of the timing of the vote. Manchin also argued that the bill would have passed if it had been brought up in the immediate aftermath of the December Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, but failed because public passion for it had cooled in the interval. He may be right again. But if so it is a terrible comment on the self-styled “world’s greatest deliberative body” that it can be moved only by short-term emotion, personified in the deaths of dozens of innocents, and not by cool logic.
3. The bill failed because while support for it was widespread, the depth of passion on the issue was all with the NRA, which opposed it. Again, the (probably correct) substance of the argument is that the Senate reacted to its own fear of confronting a small but vocal minority as opposed to a large but more easily manipulated majority.
One of the certainties of life is that we get the government we bargain for. This is true whether the issue relates to guns, economics, foreign policy or anything else. That the Senate reacted last week out of the interplay of fear and self-interest is a condemnation of the Senate, but it is also a condemnation of an electorate that tolerates its behavior.