By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
So here we go again.
The mass shootings in Atlanta (8 dead) and Boulder (10 dead) this month were no more nor less shocking than all those that preceded them. They are only more recent. And we are hearing all the usual lines from the usual suspects. The NRA immediately quoted the Second Amendment. The Colorado State Shooting Association argued that “emotional sensationalism” about gun laws will cloud remembrance of the victims, and put out the statement: “There will be a time for the debate on gun laws. But today is not the time.” The cartoonish Texas Senator Ted Cruz has decried the effort to regulate firearms as post-massacre “theater.” Louisiana Senator John Kennedy, metaphorically wringing his hands, said he hoped something could be done about “what has happened in the last few days,” but that “we ought to keep this in perspective.”
This time, however, despite the belittling by those who oppose gun control, there seems to be a greater will to action. Something has coalesced between the psyche of the public and that of federal legislators who actually want solutions. A movement built over decades—from the early days of Brady Bill advocates, to Gabby Gifford’s Americans for Responsible Solutions, to the activism by survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla., in 2018—may finally see its efforts bring some legislative sanity.
When the House of Representatives passed a bill extending background checks last year, of course, Mitch McConnell blocked it in the Senate. But this year, the House quickly passed very similar legislation. Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer—not McConnell—is now running the Senate. And President Biden not only has called on the Senate to pass the House bill, but has also called for reinstatement of the 10-year assault weapons ban that expired in 2004, as well as a ban on high capacity magazines. (A high capacity firearms magazine is one capable of holding more than 10 or 15 rounds of ammunition.) In addition, the same day the House passed its bills, California Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced one in the Senate to renew the expired assault weapons ban. For now, though, the Senate Democratic leadership is putting its energies toward passage of the House bills.
The House Bills
On March 11, the House passed two gun control bills: (1) the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021(H.R. 8), which would expand background checks; and (2) the Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2021 (H.R. 1446), which would give law enforcement more time to screen gun buyers.
Currently, federal law only requires background checks for purchases from licensed firearms dealers. H.R. 8 would extend that requirement to private sales or transfers, including those at gun shows and online. Anyone who does not have a license would have to sell through licensed firearms dealers, who would run the necessary checks for them.
H.R. 1446 would extend the FBI’s period to conduct a background check from three to 10 business days. This would close the so-called “Charleston loophole,” a gap in federal law that has allowed gun sales to proceed if a background check has not been completed in the current three-business day period. In 2015, white supremacist Dylann Roof was able to buy the gun with which he killed nine Black people during a Bible study session at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston because his background check was not wrapped up in three days.
For anyone who is a law-abiding citizen, the delay contemplated by these House bills would be, at most, an inconvenience—well worth it when weighed against the threat to public safety.
What will the Senate do?
Predictably, Republican response to the shootings and opposition to the House bills runs the gamut from deflection to absurdity. In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence, Cruz decried the consideration of legislation after the Atlanta and Boulder shootings, saying: “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.” Never mind that the hearing had been scheduled before the Atlanta and Boulder shootings occurred. And never mind that Cruz’s committee performance was a textbook example of theatrical humbug.
Louisiana Senator Kennedy has idiotically tried to equate gun violence with drunk driving, arguing that “the answer is not to get rid of all sober drivers. The answer is to concentrate on the problem.” This comparison is utterly brainless on all counts. First, if Kennedy ever bothered to read the House bills, he would find they “concentrate on the problem” by providing some sensible, life-saving rules for future firearms purchases. Neither bill provides for “getting rid” of anyone’s guns.
And second, we not only take away drunk drivers’ licenses, but we require all drivers to obtain licenses, and to take driving tests to get them. We also regulate the rules of the road—nationally. So Kennedy has unwittingly—or perhaps one should say, half-wittedly—made the case for federal firearms regulation.
Although these GOP antics are transparently inane, GOP opposition will still likely be unanimous. This leaves Senate Democrats with two serious obstacles: the need for 60 votes to overcome a Republican filibuster preventing any vote on the bills; and the need for a 51-vote majority to pass them.
To achieve the needed 60 votes ending a filibuster, 10 Republicans would have to vote with the Democrats. Finding 10 amendable Republicans is unimaginable.
But Majority Leader Schumer does not intend to let the GOP use a filibuster to silently and anonymously obstruct. To force Republicans to go on the record before the public, Schumer has pledged, “H.R. 8 will be on the floor of the Senate, and we will see where everybody stands. No more hopes and prayers.”
If Democrats manage to eliminate the Senate’s filibuster rule, they will still need every Democratic vote to pass the House bills. And at the moment, West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin opposes them. He concedes there should be background checks for commercial transactions but insists he doesn’t want checks on transfers of firearms between people who know one another. Manchin explains, “I come from a gun culture, and I’m a law-abiding gun owner who would do the right thing. You have to assume we will do the right thing. Give me a chance to.” He also has said, “Commercial, you don’t know a person. If I know a person, no.”
Manchin is either stubbornly myopic or he is not being upfront about his real objection, because the House legislation contains exceptions for loans, gifts between family members, and temporary transfers to people in situations of self-defense or at a shooting range. Furthermore, not all private sales will be between people who know each other. And even if someone is an acquaintance, whether you really “know” them depends on how perceptive you are. How many astonished neighbors have called serial killers nice quiet people who never made trouble?
Manchin claims to want a narrower measure like the bipartisan legislation he and Pennsylvania Republican Senator Pat Toomey introduced in 2013—a compromise bill that failed to pass the Senate.
Conveniently, just before the current 2021 House bills arrived at the Senate, Manchin and Toomey joined a bipartisan group of Senate lawmakers—five Democrats and five Republicans—to reintroduce a defunct 2018 Senate bill “to help make our communities safer by better enforcing existing gun laws and responding to warning signs of criminal behavior.” Toomey has acknowledged that passing this through a 50-50 Senate “is going to be difficult” but that there are “discussions under way.” One can’t help wondering whether the formation of this Gang of 10 was a last minute preemptive move in just another effort to water down the House requirements before killing gun regulation yet again.
But President Biden is not waiting for the Senate to overcome opposition. The Administration is taking steps on two tracks: pushing for the legislation, but also exploring possible executive actions to address gun violence until Congress passes legislation providing a more permanent solution.
In addition, gun control advocates are determined to make the issue a factor in the 2022 midterms. Brian Lemek, executive director of the Brady PAC says, "Between now and 2022, Brady PAC will make sure every voter knows and doesn't forget who did and did not vote for this lifesaving piece of legislation that 90% of Americans support."
For the Democrats to pass sane firearms legislation will require a change in the filibuster rule and a larger Senate majority. Those are tall orders. But with passage of the background check bills in the House, and President Biden, Senate Majority Leader Schumer, and gun control advocates coming at the problem simultaneously, there is finally some hope that we will soon be able to stop asking the question like a ritual after each mass murder: “If not now, when?”
Jessie Seigel is a fiction writer, an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. She has twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her work. But, Seigel also had a long career as a government attorney, in which she honed her analytic skills. Of this double career, Seigel would say, “I guess my right and left brains are well balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.