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Senate Democrats’ gun-control push is doomed from the start — so why bother?

Democrats’ gun bills have almost zero chance of even coming up for consideration in a Republican-controlled Senate, but for backers of the effort, it’s not just about passing a bill.

The senate’s number two Democrat, Chuck Schumer of New York, promised to introduce a gun safety bill and advance it by any means necessary.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The first thing you should know about Senate Democrats’ soon-to-be-revealed gun control plan is that it isn’t going anywhere.

Nevertheless, last week, a group of Democratic senators — including Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken — stood on the steps of the Capitol, vowing action and spelling out their principles in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon. The senate’s number two Democrat, Chuck Schumer of New York, promised to introduce a gun safety bill and advance it by any means necessary.

Simple math and recent history are enough to establish that it will be a futile exercise. Any Democrat-introduced gun legislation is unlikely to gain any traction in the Republican-held Senate. Even when the Democrats held the Senate in 2013, and in the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, they weren’t able to get background check legislation passed.

What’s the point of all this, then? To answer that, it’s best to drop the assumption that Democrats’ goal is to pass one bill: from putting heat on Republicans to spotlighting other policy to simply letting people know they are serious about gun legislation, there are a number of reasons Democrats see the push as worth their time.

Policy goals

While the entire gun legislation hasn’t been revealed — top Democrats say they are waiting for the “right time” — past bills serve as good clues as to what this package may contain.

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Broadly, it is likely to contain what proponents often describe as “common sense” gun legislation: for example, prohibiting guns from being sold until background checks are completed. (Current law allows sale 72 hours after a background check is requested.)

It will have elements of the 2013 bill, often referred to as Manchin-Toomey after its Democrat and Republican sponsors. That bill’s prospects were good: it had bipartisan backing, the vocal support of President Obama, and a Democratic Senate — yet, in the end, it fell short of passage by just a few votes. Four Democratic Senators facing tight re-election battles defected to vote no.

It was seen as a historic low point for gun control, but proponents say its central ideas — expanding background checks and closing loopholes — remain popular.

The bill is also likely to include a provision to make it harder for those convicted of various types of domestic violence and stalking to obtain a firearm, which was the focus of a bill that Sen. Klobuchar has introduced in the Senate before.

A longer legislative effort

Minnesota’s Democratic senators are realistic about the current bill’s grim prospects, but view this push as the first step in a longer effort to pass gun legislation. “I don’t think anyone is naive about getting this done,” Klobuchar told MinnPost. “The things we’re putting together have been considered before and have some Republican support…we’re trying to be pragmatic. We acknowledge we can’t get everything done.”

In particular, Klobuchar said her domestic violence and stalking provision has bipartisan support, and said discussion on this larger package may help move her bill separately.

In a statement, Franken said, “I sincerely hope that the recent string of horrific shootings will give Congress the political will to address gun violence in this country,” adding that he hopes their policy will receive Republican support, like Manchin-Toomey did in 2013. “We have to pass common sense reforms to prevent firearms from getting in the hands of the wrong people.”

Klobuchar said her party’s push is not symbolic. “I think these are common sense proposals and I don’t think it’s symbolic when over 80 percent of voters and gun owners support some kind of background check,” she said.

Republican plan focuses on mental health

Meanwhile, Republicans haven’t been particularly aggressive in countering the Democrats’ efforts so far. Instead, they’ve preferred to shed light on their own new gun safety measure, which is almost certain to advance over the Democrats’ package. The legislation, introduced by the Senate’s number two Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, is aimed at strengthening mental health programs. Proponents are branding it as an appropriate response to recent shootings in which mental illness is believed to have played a role.

The bill, backed by the National Rifle Association, has some bipartisan support, but Franken suggested it was problematic. He said it “contains several provisions that would roll back reasonable gun protections already in place. That’s not what we should be doing to address the crisis.”

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For example, one section of the bill would void a standing law preventing individuals who were involuntarily committed to a hospital for mental illness from purchasing a weapon. Broadly, some individuals with severe mental health problems would have their records expunged from the firearm background check system under Cornyn’s law.

Klobuchar said she was continuing to review the proposal.

The mental health bill also plays into what critics are calling a new favored talking point from the NRA: casting the solution to mass shootings as addressing mental health issues, not gun control. Many Democrats say both are equally important.

Political dimensions

Rich Keiser, professor of politics at Carleton College, agrees that the Democrats’ gun control push is unlikely to go anywhere, but argues that going through the motions could yield dividends — for both parties.

Electoral politics certainly play a role: Democrats seem to like the idea of putting Republican senators they are targeting in 2016 — such as Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — on the record on gun issues, Keiser said.

Keiser added that, for senate Democrats, the push is “an opportunity to once again reiterate in strong terms their support for some sort of action — actions they’ve called on before but are reiterating they’re still on board with and still working hard.”

Senate Republicans, Keiser said, will get the opportunity to show their constituencies that they continue to oppose any gun control measures.

While the gridlock might be frustrating to many, he said this is how the system was set up to work. “It’s good for democracy in that some of the most important parts, particularly the interest groups, get to show that they are really aggregating the view of their constituents and supporters and are articulating it, and members of Congress look like they’re doing something,” he said.

Still, Keiser added ruefully: “Nothing will change.”

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Activists running out of patience

While Keiser maintained that the Democrats’ action is a chance to show advocacy groups they are doing their jobs, there’s reason to believe that those groups are running out of patience, even with their closest congressional allies.

After last week’s press conference, Dan Gross of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence released an unmistakably angry, frustrated statement. Though he praised what Democrats had to say, Gross stressed that talk won’t cut it anymore. “We want to see those words followed by action,” he said. “It can’t stop by simply launching a campaign to build public support and, as they put it, ‘ramp up pressure on Congress.’ They ARE Congress!”

“We need a bill NOW and a vote NOW.”

To be sure, it’s not like gun control advocates have a home anywhere but the Democratic Party, but they can put heat on their Democratic allies. In the past, gun control activists have hammered Democrats, such as North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp, with ad campaigns criticizing their votes against gun legislation.

Franken aides said they understand and empathize with the frustration of activists, but emphasized that Democrats have to face reality: they hold nine fewer Senate seats than they did when Manchin-Toomey failed. Still, they acknowledged that despite having a “smaller toolbox,” Democrats are considering all options to advance gun legislation.

The reaction to this latest gun push — which has the potential to be the most serious one since Manchin-Toomey — suggests expectations are higher than ever for advocates of gun control. The frustration and anger among those in the gun control activist community is palpable. Whatever happens, Democrats will have to assure them they have their interests at heart while credibly explaining there isn’t much they can do — at least until they retake control of Congress.

Until then, Democrats will have to wait for their moment to move this bill forward in its modest mission. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer told reporters that it could be later this year, or next year. With Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell controlling the Senate floor, it’s highly improbable he’d allow his party to be forced to vote on the bill, as much as Democrats want to put them on the record.

As unsatisfying as it may be, Democrats and gun control advocates will have to settle for a long game. “I understand that frustration,” Klobuchar said. “We’re trying to look at more pragmatic things we think we could pass. It won’t happen overnight but we want to get it moving.”