Forty-one Republican and five Democratic U.S. senators decided Wednesday that the appropriate response to the massacre of 20 schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut is to do nothing. Even the simplest of measures, an expansion of background checks to help keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill that is supported by 90 percent of Americans and a majority of the Senate, could not win passage. Abuse of the filibuster by minority Republicans, combined with the cowardice of the 46 senators in the face of the power of the National Rifle Association and the fanaticism of a small, shrill group of gun lovers produced what President Obama accurately described as a "shameful day" in Washington D.C.
As is so often the case in the nation’s capital, Wednesday’s vote was all about politics and not about what is good for America and supported by the majority of Americans. The president said opponents had offered "no coherent arguments" against the bill, and one of the most incoherent arguments offered is that criminals won’t abide by laws like background checks. That is largely the point, as those who avoid the checks and obtain guns illegally are subject to arrest and prosecution. Armed criminals have few better allies than the NRA and the organization’s Washington puppets.
In the absence of coherent arguments we have what Gabby Giffords, a former Democratic U.S. representative from Arizona whose career was ended when she was shot in the head while meeting with constituents, described as "willfully false accounts" of the specifics of the Senate bill in a withering New York Times op-ed piece Thursday. Even more to the point, the president described them Wednesday as lies. The law did not create a national registry, as the NRA claimed, and the NRA certainly knew better, but the organization also knew that its claim would rile up the zealots who have been waiting since 2009 for President Obama’s stormtroopers to come in the middle of the night and take their guns. The fanatics yelled and the 46, as the president said Thursday, "caved to the pressure."
The bill’s failure was another blow to the parents and family members of the children slaughtered in Newtown who came to Washington to lobby for passage. If the defeat wasn’t bad enough, they were demeaned as props by Kentucky tea partier Rand Paul. If only a handful of the 46 had shown the courage of Mark Barden, whose seven-year-old son Daniel was gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, when he went to the podium at the White House to reiterate his coherent argument for the failed law, and promise that "we are not going anywhere."
In the wake of the Newtown bloodbath, advocates for gun law reform will not go away, although in this era of minority rule reform will be difficult to pass. For this reason, the Massachusetts Legislature must follow the lead of Connecticut and New York and pass the new gun laws proposed by Governor Deval Patrick. While no substitute for tougher federal laws, that battle will take awhile. Those fighting that battle aren’t giving up.