The one way Congress will pass new gun laws

The Observer editorial board

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, proposed a bipartisan gun measure on Tuesday.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, proposed a bipartisan gun measure on Tuesday. Getty Images

Politics, not the Second Amendment, prevents reasonable restrictions on guns. Two events within hours of each other on Monday proved that.

First, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear challenges to assault weapon bans in Connecticut and New York. By doing so, the court tacitly approved of those bans and similar ones around the country. It’s the court’s most recent indicator that it finds certain limitations constitutional.

Hours later, with politics heavy in the air, the U.S. Senate defeated four measures that could have introduced just a little bit of sanity into the nation’s gun laws. The votes showed the ineptitude of what was once the world’s greatest deliberative body. All 100 senators believe that suspected terrorists should not be able to buy guns legally, and yet they couldn’t pass a law to address it.

An important overlooked fact: A majority of senators approved certain gun-control measures Monday night. But your civics teacher taught you wrong: Majority doesn’t rule. The Senate imposes rules on itself requiring 60 votes, not 51, to advance measures like these. Forty-one senators can block the will of 59 (and those 41 could represent tens of millions fewer people). The Senate could change its rules so that a simple majority carries the day. Absent that, gridlock is guaranteed.

The Senate comes off as especially incompetent in this case because some of the proposals it considered were mere baby steps in addressing the epidemic of gun violence unique to America. Two of the proposals sought to prevent terror suspects on the “no-fly” list from buying guns.

But Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s proposal to empower the Justice Department to block those gun sales was defeated 53-47. A Republican alternative that would have blocked the sale only under the most extreme circumstances also fell short of the 60 required votes.

Two other reasonable measures – dedicating more resources to a national background check system and closing background check loopholes – were also voted down.

Inaction in the face of such frequent mass shootings is reprehensible. And it happens despite a majority of Americans, and even a majority of gun owners, backing basic limits on gun ownership.

A Pew Research Center report in 2013 found that 79 percent of gun owners support background checks and closing loopholes. Another poll found that even three-quarters of NRA members approve as well. A CBS poll last week found that 89 percent of Americans approve of universal background checks – including 82 percent of gun owners.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, unveiled a compromise Tuesday that would block gun purchases by a smaller subset of terror suspects on the no-fly list. Nearly any bipartisan action on guns is welcome, but this would be the most incremental of steps.

The Supreme Court (including in an opinion authored by none other than Antonin Scalia) has made clear that certain gun limits are constitutional. But there’s probably only one way laws with teeth will ever become a reality: Voters elect different people to Congress, and those representatives impose majority rule.