Dance of Death: Congressional Inaction After El Paso and Dayton
Amnesty International warns travelers to stay alert in public spaces, slamming this government for failing to uphold human rights. Venezuela and Uruguay join Germany, Ireland, Canada, and New Zealand in issuing travel warnings citing unsafe conditions, crime, and terrorism. Over 9,000 have died there this year because of gun violence, all while their federal government refuses to vote on and pass any legislation to address the bloodshed. One might expect as much from a description of a war-torn Middle Eastern country or a Central American nation ravaged by gang violence. But the country in question is actually the United States of America, where we once again find ourselves angered and distraught after two gunmen ripped apart communities in Texas and Ohio within 24 hours of each other.
As usual, people have been asking whether this will be the shooting that finally brings about meaningful action from Congress or the White House. My response: certainly not. Congress and the National Rifle Association (NRA) will perform another rendition of their brilliantly choreographed and well-rehearsed pas de deux, a dance that has become all too familiar. As is typical of the ballet dance, the pas de deux will feature an adagio. In this section, the ballerina—Congress in this case—performs in a slow, controlled, and drawn out manner. Meanwhile, the ballerino—the NRA—guides the ballerina and allows her to stretch and move beyond what she can do alone, all while he maintains a strong and commanding outward presence.
Then, both dancers perform a solo. First, Congress performs Variations on a Theme of Tweeting. Some urge immediate action while others equivocate, chiding their colleagues for politicizing a tragedy. Next, the NRA enters with a seemingly frenzied but meticulously planned solo, pressuring Congress to remain inactive while stoking gun owners’ fears. Both dancers showcase their best talents, respectively scoring political points and exerting political influence. Shortly after the dancers reach their climax and it seems that change is finally inevitable, Congress and the NRA stall, pressure abates, and the curtain falls. We, the audience, are left to applaud the efforts of the dancers, until the curtain rises again to distract us with the next performance—typically the most recent scandal, tweet, or quote.
Of course, it isn’t this simple. Congress has acted—and recently. In February, one of the first actions the newly-elected House of Representatives took was to pass H.R.8, which would “require a background check for every firearm sale,” and H.R.1112, which extends the period within which the government must complete a background check before a purchase may occur. This addresses one of the biggest issues with gun control enforcement currently: if a background check cannot be completed within three days, the purchase can proceed regardless. Since then, both bills have sat on the desk of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Once a bill has passed in the House, McConnell alone decides when—and if—the Senate votes.
Many gleefully compare McConnell’s appearance to a turtle. However true, the resemblance is most appropriate in terms of his lethargic response to repeated calls for tighter gun regulations. After the Las Vegas shooting in October 2017 which killed 58, McConnell delayed, saying “I think it’s premature to be discussing legislative solutions, if there are any.” And after 17 were shot and killed in Parkland, Florida, McConnell told community leaders in Kentucky, “I don’t think at the federal level there’s much that we can do other than appropriate funds.” Certainly, we must consider other contributing factors to gun violence, such as mental health, white nationalism, and police brutality. But in the political sphere, McConnell proudly acts as obstructionist-in-chief, preventing any substantive action since Congress allowed the Federal Assault Weapons Ban to expire in 2004. Moreover, as long as the NRA is allowed to exert vast influence under Citizens United, Republicans in Congress will continue to vote against the interests of their constituents, either because they need the NRA’s money for reelection or because the NRA funded their campaigns in the first place.
In recent weeks, both McConnell and President Donald Trump have voiced willingness to pass legislation, with McConnell saying it will be “front and center” when the Senate returns from its recess on September 9th. Although this is the first time recently that he has called for action, I remain skeptical that anything will become law.
By the time the Senate is back in session, an intrusive political drama or international crisis likely will have transpired. With the media and public conveniently distracted, McConnell will silently hold course and bar any debates or votes. Or, he will encourage a few of his colleagues to add amendments to the bill, knowing Democratic Senators will vote against it. After the bill fails, McConnell will accuse the Democrats of being obstructionists, despite the fact that his party holds the majority in the upper chamber. Trump frequently urges improving gun laws after shootings, yet he has repeatedly used regulatory maneuvers to make purchasing a gun easier, raising questions regarding his commitment to passing tighter regulations.
As long as the NRA’s money continues to pervade Washington, Republicans in Congress will be deaf to public opinion. A recent POLITICO/Morning Consult poll shows that, even among registered Republican voters, a majority support stricter gun laws, including a ban on assault weapons. A whopping 90 percent support universal background checks, the subject of H.R.8. This disparity between public opinion and congressional action is deeply troubling. It’s long past time for Republicans to pass the common-sense gun reform that most Americans want, and it’s past time for McConnell to stop shielding members of his party from having to vote on record. Sadly, I believe that life-saving reforms will only come with Democratic control of both houses of Congress and a Democratic President. Until then, the American people must demand that Mitch McConnell leave the comfort of the NRA’s pocket, recognize our will, and allow the Senate to vote.