The failure of a bill to expand background checks shows that only shame can persuade NRA-fearing Republicans to do what is right, says Daniella Gibbs Léger.
Fair warning: I am angry. Like, really angry. Last week was a pretty awful one for our nation. My heart breaks for all those wounded and the families of those killed in the horrific Boston Marathon attack. And my heart equally breaks for those killed in the tragic plant explosion in Texas. These events remind me of how fleeting life can be. This is a feeling that the thousands of victims of gun violence know all too well.
Which brings me to my rage. Before the events unfolded last week, Washington was going to be all about gun violence. Specifically, Congress was debating a bill on universal background checks. After the Newtown massacre, after the 3,500 gun murders and 5,500 gun suicides and accidental gun deaths since Newtown, after members of Congress and the President vowed to DO SOMETHING, a commonsense, bi-partisan bill on background checks failed the Senate 54-46. That’s right — it had majority support, but Republicans filibustered, forcing the Senate to reach the 60-vote threshold to even hold a vote on the bill.
Oh, and did I mention that about 90 percent of Americans support universal background checks? When is the last time 90 percent of anyone agreed on anything? It fills me with shame and a growing rage that something so universally supported and non-controversial could not get out of the Senate because a minority of Senators are more concerned about what the NRA leadership thinks than what the American people think. And the NRA certainly played up to these fears, spending record amounts on lobbying this first quarter — lobbying against something that their own members support.
And let me be clear about who I think deserves the blame: It’s the Republicans in the Senate. Sure, there were 4 Democrats who voted against the bill. Their cowardice is particularly shameful, considering that red-state Democratic senators up for re-election in 2014, like Mary Landrieu and Kay Hagen, voted yes. But the GOP gets the brunt of my rage. Why? It’s simple: About 90 percent of Democrats voted with 90 percent of the American people, and about 90 percent of Republicans voted against them. We didn’t even need a majority of Republicans to vote yes… we only needed 10 or so. But they couldn’t even muster that — we got 4. So shame on the GOP. Shame. On. Them.
This is an issue that hits home for our community. As we all know, in hundreds of communities across the country, gun violence is something African-Americans have to deal with on a daily basis. Too many parents have seen their kids lose their lives at the end of a gun. Too many of our children are attempting to learn and grow in communities plagued by gun violence. And for women, the toll of gun violence is often magnified. Compared with women in other developed nations, women in the U.S. are 11 times more likely to be murdered with guns.
Critics of the bill argued that it wouldn’t do much to stop “urban gun violence.” Well, that’s debatable. But even if that were true, again, that’s not an excuse for doing NOTHING. And NOTHING is what is happening now.
It is said that the reason why gun reforms fail is because the support is soft. In other words, there may be 90 percent support for universal background checks, but not enough people among that 90 percent call their member of Congress, fundraise against them, hold rallies, put out ads, etc. Whereas the forces against any new gun laws may be smaller in number, but they are more passionate and spend more of their time and money to defeat the bills they don’t like.
Could 2013 be the year that this fact is no longer true? There are people and groups out there who are willing to spend a lot of money to put pressure on our elected officials to pass sensible gun reforms. And there was a strong grassroots effort — including ESSENCE’s own Guns Down initiative and the No More Names Vigil — designed to support the bill and put pressure on members to pass the bill. But as last week proved, those efforts weren’t enough to stop Republicans’ cowardice in the face of the NRA.
So maybe shame will do it. Maybe people like Sen. Jeff Flake — who wrote this letter to the mother of an Aurora, Colorado, victim — will be shamed into changing his vote. Maybe the families of those poor innocent children in Newtown who couldn’t even get meetings with some Senators — maybe their tear-filled pleas will shame some members into changing their votes. Maybe the faces of the hundreds of Americans who die each week at the end of a gun will haunt those members who voted no. Maybe the tortured faces of young Hadiya Pendleton’s parents will shame them. Maybe all these things taken together will have an impact. Maybe.
In the meantime, I remain angry and disappointed. And you should be too.
Daniella Gibbs Léger, a former special assistant to President Obama, is the Senior Vice President for American Values and New Communities at the Center for American Progress. Follow her on Twitter @dgibber123