Saturday, April 20, 2013

While we were sleeping, Congress took us to the cleaners ... Part 1

With all the high paced drama in Boston unfolded at warp speed this week, Americans were undoubtedly tuned in to see every detail, picture, and sound bite connected to the story. All Americans were glad to see the culprits apprehended, but while we were engrossed in following the chase in Boston, watching authorities work their magic, Congress was busy letting down Americans yet again. Two major pieces of legislation faced serious consideration this past week and Congress made the wrong call on both.

The first major failure of Congress belongs to the upper house, where the Senate voted down the Manchin-Toomey Amendment. This would have required background checks for all commercial gun purchases, which served as a compromise to the more drastic measures the Obama administration had hoped to implement after the Newtown massacre.

Republicans had threatened to filibuster any gun control measures, thus Democrats needed 60 votes to invoke cloture and end debate. When the vote came, the tally was 54-46.

The tragedy of this vote is two-fold. First, this crushing defeat of the Manchin-Toomey Amendment represents the great power of interest groups in the American political system. The second great issue with this failure is in our inability to answer the great question, "What's the objection to universal background checks?"

Polling institutions such as Gallup have found that over 90% of Americans favor expanding background checks on commercial gun sales. So why did the bill fail to gain traction in the Senate?

A great article by the Christian Science Monitor explains the impact of several key issues regarding why Manchin-Toomey didn't work despite broad support from the public, including how various aspects of our governmental system allow for interest groups to wield influence.

One such piece of our system is the equal representation within the Senate. States such as Wyoming or Montana have very little population with respect to larger places such as New York or California, but all have the same number of votes within the Senate. This means a small minority of the population still can tip the lawmaking body by exerting pressure on its representatives.

Pressure is not only exerted by voters, but by interest groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA), who spend large quantities of money supporting or attempting to defeat candidates. Also, interest groups spend large quantities of cash on lobbyists who directly attempt to influence lawmakers.

People also have underestimated the intensity of gun rights advocates and their dedication to preserving what they believe to be a protection of the Second Amendment. When the very conservative are the ones doing most of the talking and lobbying on an issue, well, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. And sadly, the squeaking coming from the interest groups and the more conservative voters of the GOP, who many Republican senators are concerned with when it comes to voting in primary elections.

So, this leads to my second question -- what exactly is the legit objection to universal background checks on commercial gun sales? There is none.
The preferred piece of logic used by gun rights advocates is that "criminals don't follow the law -- so why restrict the rights of law abiding citizens?" If you would use this logic, then we wouldn't make any laws at all. What would be the point in making laws about murder if criminals were going to do it anyway?

Despite the rhetoric from the NRA and other conservative groups, the federal government is not attempting to take guns away from anyone. In fact, the Supreme Court (which in itself is part of the federal government) has twice ruled in favor of gun rights advocates in key cases over the past four years (see: D.C. v. Heller & McDonald v. Chicago). Please tell me how our gun rights are being stripped away. A background check on a gun purchase does not impede anyone's Second Amendment rights. Requiring background checks would have only it more difficult for criminals to acquire guns and I can't see how that's a bad idea.

While the Senate was busy dropping the ball with the Manchin-Toomey Amendment, the House of Representatives made perhaps an even more catastrophic mistake ... Part 2 coming soon.

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