US shoots itself in foot with partisan gun politics

Democrats may win seats with their hardline stance on gun control, but compromise is vital or things are destined to remain deadlocked in this polarised politics, writes Adam Skaggs

ON MONDAY morning, the US supreme court signalled again that the country’s constitution does not stand in the way of addressing gun violence.

The court refused to hear a challenge to a Connecticut law that broadly restricts access to the kind of semi-automatic rifles used in the 2014 Sandy Hook shooting — and, more recently, in San Bernardino, California, and Orlando, Florida. That lets the law stand.

It was the latest confirmation that the second amendment — the right to bear arms — does not impede most laws designed to reduce gun violence. The US supreme court’s landmark Heller decision in 2008 established that a broad range of gun regulations are “presumptively lawful”. The court has driven this point home repeatedly, leaving in place dozens of lower court decisions upholding a wide range of gun laws.

Yet, just hours after the court’s action, the US Senate reaffirmed another truth about American democracy: The likelihood of the current US Congress passing meaningful gun reform is close to zero.

Even as the urgency of American gun violence increases — not only in light of the horrific incident in Orlando, but also the fact that the 49 killed at the Pulse nightclub were fewer than half the number of Americans killed with guns that weekend — the US Congress does nothing.

It may not be realistic to expect US congressional consensus on contentious gun issues, or even seemingly easy ones, like keeping suspected terrorists from buying the kind of guns used in the Orlando massacre. But when the US Senate, along partisan lines, rejected four bills aimed at curbing gun sales on Monday, it looked like even meaningful compromise was off the table.

That’s not to say there’s no talk of bi-partisan collaboration. US senator Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, has been working with a bipartisan group of colleagues to break the logjam with a compromise proposal. But the odds are stacked against it. The stalemate is hardening because neither side displays genuine interest in giving any ground.

Many Republicans depend on support from the powerful gun lobby. They have every reason not to bend. Ditto the Democrats. Having taken so many political hits on gun politics over the last two decades, and sensing a sea-change that gives them the political upper-hand, why ease up now?

The Democratic Party has every incentive to exploit the issue for political gain rather than concede even an inch and settle for a bill that can garner support from an increasingly elusive group of moderates.

The Republican intransigence on guns stems from fear of a powerful gun lobby led by the National Rifle Association. The NRA once took a bipartisan approach, supporting members of either party it trusted on guns. But no more: Now the NRA is all in on the GOP. It spends tremendous amounts of money and mobilises its membership base on behalf of the Republican politicians who toe its line.

GOP officials rightly fear that any willingness to compromise on gun issues will provoke the NRA’s wrath — which could result in the gun lobby backing a future primary opponent.

In the middle of a US presidential campaign where many fear that usually engaged political supporters may sit on the sidelines, to anger the NRA could be political suicide.

Democrats used to cower in fear of the NRA as well. For a generation, the party viewed gun issues as an untouchable third rail of politics.

Monday’s vote reveals a significant change in their thinking. But it isn’t any more likely to lead to bipartisan compromise on a bill.

Democrats clearly aren’t afraid of gun politics anymore. In fact, they’re pulling out the stops to show voters that they’re smart on guns, and strong on public safety. The public agrees overwhelmingly — as new polling shows. So why should they meet the hardline, gun-lobby opposition half-way?

The Democrats’ new approach became obvious during the presidential primary, when former secretary of state Hillary Clinton said she was proud to have made an enemy of the NRA and repeatedly attacked senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont for his past votes against background checks and for gun-industry immunity.

The change was also visible when Democratic senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut led a filibuster to demand votes on background checks and the terror gap just days after the Orlando shooting. No response to a mass shooting has led to a vote in US Congress as quickly.

And the change was visible in Monday’s voting, when Democrats drew sharp lines in the sand and signalled that they plan to make guns a political litmus test they’ll exploit through election day.

This new, vocal engagement on gun violence may help Democrats win seats in the US Congress, and it may help usher Clinton into the White House — especially given the emergence of an engaged, passionate and increasingly well-resourced gun-violence-prevention movement.

But it’s not likely to produce any meaningful action in Congress in the near-term, given the persistence of America’s hyper-polarised, gridlocked politics.

The US senate on Monday didn’t do anything about the “terror gap” that allows those on the no-fly list to buy firearms legally.

And it swung and missed on adopting comprehensive criminal background checks for gun sales — a policy supported by nine in ten Americans, and three-quarters of NRA members.

Collins’ efforts to identify a bipartisan middle ground are commendable, but they face extraordinary odds.

In all, it’s a recipe for inaction through election day — and, likely, beyond.

If there’s hope, it’s that the public is increasingly fed up with the never-ending drumbeat of gun violence that claims more 90 American lives each day.

Only when the public demands that the US Congress elevates public safety over partisan politics — and makes that demand in the voting booth — will there be any real chance for federal legislation that will meaningfully combat American gun violence.

Adam Skaggs is an attorney in New York City who specialises in gun policy and second amendment law.


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