Skip to main content

Gun control fight just beginning

By Paul Waldman, Special to CNN
April 19, 2013 -- Updated 1514 GMT (2314 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Paul Waldman: Background check failure another shameful day for a cowardly Congress
  • Senate undemocratic, he says; small rural states have outsized power
  • He says Sen. Chuck Grassley spread lies to kill legislation
  • Waldman: This time, Americans got to see power of NRA-stoked paranoia

Editor's note: Paul Waldman is a contributing editor at The American Prospect and the author of "Being Right Is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success." Follow him on his blog and on Twitter.

(CNN) -- When the Manchin-Toomey background check amendment, a modest gun restriction by any reasonable measure, was defeated, President Barack Obama called it a "shameful day in Washington." But as anyone who watches Congress knows, it has more than its share of shameful days.

There the deck was stacked against not only this bill, but against any bill that would restrict the proliferation of guns in any way. If those seeking sanity in our gun laws want to succeed, they'd better prepare themselves for a difficult journey.

Many people thought that the Newtown massacre changed everything about the gun debate in America, and that new legislation was inevitable. The first part of that belief is still true; the second part is not. The bill was doomed for a number of reasons.

The Senate is an extraordinarily undemocratic institution, where outsized power goes to the small, rural states with strong support for unlimited gun rights. The 57 million Americans who live in California and New York get four votes in the Senate, all of which were in favor of background checks.

Paul Waldman
Paul Waldman
Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



But the 1.3 million Americans who live in Wyoming and North Dakota also get four votes, and they were all opposed. And that's not to mention the filibuster, which allows the minority to thwart the majority's will. You might not have realized it if you watched the coverage, but this background check bill was supported by a majority of the Senate.

And even if it had passed the Senate, the bill would have likely died in the House, which is tilted in favor of Republicans, mostly because the way Americans are distributed. More Americans voted for Democrats than Republicans in the 2012 House elections, but Republicans enjoy a 31-seat advantage, meaning their leader controls the agenda and can kill any bill he and his caucus dislike.

Opinion: One way to fight guns

So does this mean the NRA still inspires the same fear it long has among lawmakers? Not really.

The truth is that most of the people who threatened to filibuster the background check bill aren't afraid of the NRA. They're on its side. They don't need to be intimidated or even persuaded.

Take Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who many years ago was known as a straightforward, even moderate fellow, but who at some point decided that if he didn't like a bill, the best thing to do is to simply lie about what it contained, stoke fears or both.

He did it when he spread the "death panel" lie during the debate over health reform, and he did it again this time, telling people falsely that the Manchin-Toomey amendment would mean a national registry of every American who owns a gun. He then warned darkly, "when registration fails, the next move will be gun confiscation."

For the record, the Manchin-Toomey amendment specifically forbade the government from creating a gun registry, which is why Obama and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia -- a guy from a state Obama lost by 27 points in 2012, who got elected to the Senate with an ad showing him firing a rifle shot through a piece of legislation while the announcer trumpeted his NRA endorsement -- accused the NRA and its supporters of lying about it.

But Grassley and others spread the lie, knowing it would energize the paranoid and influence the more cowardly of their colleagues. As one gun lobbyist gloated after the bill was defeated, "The gun registry defined the battle over universal background checks."

We shouldn't have been too surprised.

Obama angry about gun bill failure
Obama: Gun lobby 'willfully lied'

But one of the salutary effects of this debate is how it has brought to wider public attention the kind of unhinged conspiracy theorizing, paranoia and outright hate most Americans wouldn't know about if they hadn't been attending NRA meetings or reading pro-gun Web sites in recent years.

The insanity of some of those who opposed this bill was captured by the Minnesota radio host who said to the Newtown families, "I'm sorry that you suffered a tragedy, but you know what? Deal with it, and don't force me to lose my liberty, which is a greater tragedy than your loss."

That's right -- having to get a background check when you buy a gun at a gun show is worse than having your child murdered. For good measure, he added that if he had the opportunity to meet those families, "I would stand in front of them and tell them, 'Go to hell.' "

Opinion: Loved ones lost to bullets

Most gun owners would hear that and be disgusted, just as most gun owners think universal background checks are perfectly reasonable. So now, gun safety advocates have to change how they think of their cause. It would have been nice if we could have made our gun laws a little more sane in this first try, but sometimes, change takes longer. But change is already underway.

For 15 years, the debate on guns in America was no debate at all.

One side would scream, "They're coming for your guns!" and the other side would respond, "Can't we talk about something else?"

Now we actually have a debate with two sides. Democratic politicians (and a few Republicans) are no longer so afraid to say that the right to bear arms is not infinite; like every other right in the Constitution, it's subject to reasonable limits.

The money from the gun manufacturers and the NRA will be met with an equally well-funded campaign -- and maybe more well-funded -- from Michael Bloomberg.

In fact, this defeat may be just what the gun safety movement needs to energize its supporters.

Talk to liberals a day after the vote, and you'll hear anger, frustration and disgust at the craven senators who couldn't stand up to the gun lobby. Those emotions are exactly what spur people to become involved. If they want to succeed, in the coming months and years, they'll need to make sure their voices are as loud as those of the NRA and its supporters.

A number on a poll, like the 90% of Americans who support universal background checks, isn't politically meaningful unless it inspires some fear in lawmakers.

This time around, they obviously weren't afraid enough. But if support for new gun measures can become an actual movement again -- with letters and phone calls and contributions and door knocking and an unmistakable message to candidates that there will be a price to be paid for going against it -- then next time around, they may be.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Waldman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 1750 GMT (0150 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT