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“Not Quite What Happened”: Sen. Joe Manchin’s Misreading Of Gun Control Politics

Senator Joe Manchin did an laudable job this year of trying to steer a bipartisan gun-control package through the Senate, despite being a Democrat representing a red state where hunting is very popular. And he may be called upon to do so again next year. But his comments about the politics of gun control yesterday on CNN’s “State of the Union” seem very wrong, and might bode poorly for the fate of gun control legislation next year:

 What we found out is that people just didn’t trust government, that they were going to stop there. So they said hey Joe, we’re OK with the bill. We like the bill. The bill is not bad at all. We can live with that. But we just don’t trust government stopping and doing what we say we’re going to do.

That’s not quite what happened. Indeed, people liked the bill — very much. As proponents of the legislation often pointed out, support for universal background checks is around 90 percent and remained that high through the entire gun control debate.

It’s hard to find evidence for Manchin’s claim that the legislation failed because people didn’t “trust the government…to stop there.” An April 2013 Washington Post poll – at the height of the gun control debate — found that 55 percent of Americans thought it was possible to make new gun control laws without interfering with the rights of gun owners, with 38 percent thinking otherwise. Americans also said enacting new laws to reduce gun violence were more important than protecting the rights of gun owners, by a 52-40 margin, according to the polls.

And others, including a HuffPost/YouGov poll in September, found that 48 percent of Americans wanted gun laws that were more strict, compared with 16 percent who said less strict and 29 percent who wanted no change.

Now it’s certainly true that pro-gun groups liked to scaremonger about a “national gun registry” that would be used to take away the rights of gun-owners—but despite their best efforts, we still saw polls with broad, bipartisan support for the Manchin-Toomey legislation.

Manchin surely knows such claims are unfounded, since his own bill explicitly makes such a registry illegal, and since he regularly dismissed such concerns back in the spring. So it’s quite odd to see him retroactively validating those unfounded concerns now, and ascribing them to “most people” instead of misinformation by the gun industry and its political allies.

That’s troubling for the immediate future of gun control, because if Manchin really believes the public has spoken, that would be a much more intractable problem then simply fighting some industry misinformation and winning a couple more votes.

But this little episode also underscores a personal pet peeve: the tendency by many people, including those who work within the system and know better, to broadly and belatedly ascribe legislative outcomes as the obvious will of the voters. Gun control failed despite public support, because pro-gun groups are quite adept at lobbying (and spending money), and because many legislators feared primary challenges from pro-gun opponents. Even though it failed in Congress, it didn’t fail with the people.

Similarly, you might hear folks pontificating that the death of the public option during the debate over the Affordable Care Act shows that Americans aren’t ready for socialized health insurance—but the public option was extraordinarily popular with both conservatives and liberals, and was in fact one of the more popular parts of the bill. Our democracy doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to, and people who work in politics would be wise to remember that when assessing what went wrong and how to move forward.

By: Greg Sargent, The Plum Line, The Washington Post; December 23, 2013

December 26, 2013 Posted by | Gun Control, Gun Violence | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Under The Dome Of The NRA”: Navy Yard Shooting, A Jarring Reminder Of America’s Gun Problem

At least thirteen people were killed at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday, including a suspected gunman, in the latest iteration of a now-familiar US news event: a mass shooting that claims victims apparently at random.

As the streets of DC came to life Monday morning, reports emerged around 8:20 am that shots were fired at the naval facility on the city’s southeast waterfront, less than two miles from the US Capitol. It quickly became clear that multiple people had been shot during a rampage, and at a 2 pm news conference on the perimeter of the crime scene, police confirmed that twelve people lay dead inside. The number was later updated to thirteen.

During a press briefing at the MedStar Washington Hospital Center not long after the shootings, a spokeswoman speculated that “it had to be a semi-automatic [weapon],” based on witness descriptions of gunshots heard in “rapid succession.” Authorities later confirmed that indeed the suspected gunman had an assault rifle as well as a pistol.

Police identified the deceased suspected shooter as Aaron Alexis, a 34-year-old man from Fort Worth, Texas, who reportedly worked at some point as a contractor for the Navy.

In the context of increasingly frequent mass shootings and a highly visible congressional debate on gun control, any further mass gun violence is sure to become a political issue—all the more so when it happens in Washington itself.

Had the scene outside the Navy Yard been in a movie about a fictional gun control debate, it probably would have been rejected as too didactic.

The Capitol dome was part of the nearby skyline as reporters, television cameras, scattered passerby and law enforcement officers converged on M Street Southeast at the western edge of the perimeter set up by police. To the east, all one could see was a small army of emergency responders in the street; the sidewalk-to-sidewalk flashing lights made individual vehicles almost indistinguishable. A US Park Police helicopter flew in tight circles extremely low overhead.

In isolation it was not that unusual of a sight in DC: it looked like perhaps one of the many motorcades that criss-cross the city from time to time. But people on the street were unusually quiet and unsettled, because of course there was no dark limousine nor group of dignitaries in the middle of the chaos but rather the scene of a grisly multiple murder.

Many of the reporters at the scene wore congressional press credentials and might have otherwise been covering a comparatively dry budget debate, but instead scoured around for witnesses to the shooting. Blocks away, Senate office buildings were placed on a two-hour lockdown, with staffers unable to exit or enter, and intimidating military-style vehicles surrounded the Capitol complex.

In that fictional movie, this is where a dysfunctional Congress finally springs into action and helps solve the problem. The very same staffers who worked behind the scenes to scuttle this year’s big gun control legislation, now trapped in their offices because a mass shooter might be on the loose, suddenly see the light and pull the Manchin-Toomey legislation out of their desk drawers.

But will that happen here? While it’s clearly very early on, and the gun control debate has taken some surprising turns in the past year, this scenario seems unlikely. Senator Manchin already told reporters Monday afternoon he still didn’t have the votes to get his gun control legislation passed; no previously opposed members suddenly announced a new position. Only hours before the shootings, members of Congress and gun control advocates were bemoaning a recent loss of momentum in Congress thanks to recall elections in Colorado that cost two longtime legislators their jobs because they supported tighter gun rules earlier this year.

Continued inaction seems likely because the gun control debate has never suffered for an absence of bloodshed. Manchin-Toomey didn’t fail because the slayings at Sandy Hook Elementary School weren’t quite tragic enough. More indiscriminate killings—even right in the backyard of Congress—probably won’t change the fundamental calculus made by Senators to sidestep the wrath of the National Rifle Association (on display in Colorado just last week) and extremely pro-gun conservative voters, who value “gun rights” to the exclusion of almost any other issue.

That said, the gun control package was only a couple of votes short in the Senate this year. Maybe more shootings will finally convince someone to change his or her vote. But more likely, until the fundamentals of the debate change, this mass bloodshed will only serve as gruesome illustrations of a problem nobody in Washington can seem to solve—nor even meangingfully address.


By: George Zornick, The Nation, September 16, 2013

September 17, 2013 Posted by | Gun Control, Gun Violence | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Counting On Public Confusion”: Sen Jeff Flake Hopes Dissembling Will Solve His Gun Problem

A month after Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) joined his GOP colleagues in killing a bipartisan background-check bill, the rookie senator is still struggling with the political fallout. This ad from Mayors Against Illegal Guns is the latest to put Flake on the defensive. Watch on YouTube

Flake’s strategy, at least for now, is built entirely on dissembling.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) is pushing back against attack ads that say he broke his promise to support passing new gun laws.

“If you are anywhere close to a television set in Arizona in the coming days, you’ll likely see an ad about gun control financed by NYC Mayor Bloomberg,” Flake wrote Friday on his Facebook page. “Contrary to the ad, I did vote to strengthen background checks.”

I can appreciate why the ads have gotten Flake’s attention, but this “vote to strengthen background checks” rhetoric is exactly the sort of thing that rankles. Flake must realize how misleading this is, but is counting on public confusion to make his political troubles go away. It’s cynical, and the public deserves better.

Indeed, it’s apparently become the standard strategy for every Republican senator facing pushback from his his/her constituents — Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) is pulling exact same stunt.

Let’s set the record straight once more.

Flake’s pitch — “Contrary to the ad, I did vote to strengthen background checks” — is technically true. It’s also true that Flake filibustered the Manchin/Toomey compromise on background checks that enjoyed broad public support. So, Flake is relying on semantics games as a defense for doing the wrong thing? Yes, that’s exactly what he’s doing.

As we’ve discussed before, conservatives are relying on specific definitions of words and phrases that don’t quite line up with what everyone else is talking about. As Sahil Kapur explained recently:

There’s a critical distinction to be made between universal background checks, a robust policy that would require criminal checks for virtually all gun purchases — and a more milquetoast proposal to beef up mental health information in existing databases. The former is championed by gun control advocates and experts who say it would have a significant impact. The latter is supported by the NRA and does nothing to make it harder for criminals to buy firearms at private sales or gun shows, where background checks are not required by law.

It’s obviously an important clarification. The right is generally comfortable with improving the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, by integrating mental health records, for example. When Flake endorses stronger “background checks,” this is what he’s talking about, not closing the gun-show loophole.

Flake is counting on voters losing sight of the distinction.

Just as important, though, is the unstated concession: Flake is feeling defensive, which gives away much of the game. Under the NRA’s worldview, which Flake supports and defends, there’s nothing for conservative senators to be embarrassed about — by crushing expanded background checks, Republicans are taking a stand against tyranny. Voters love freedom and need not fear electoral consequences for voting the way the NRA demands.

Or so the argument goes.

But Flake’s cynical defense suggests that below the surface, he knows the NRA’s boasts about the political landscape aren’t true.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 20, 2013

May 23, 2013 Posted by | Background Checks, Gun Control | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“To Know Him Is To Dislike Him”: Ted Cruz On How To Make Enemies And Alienate People

As we discussed a month ago, Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) career on Capitol Hill is off to a difficult start. The Atlantic noted “a remarkable number of both Republicans and Democrats” have already come forward “to say that they think Cruz is kind of a jerk.” The New York Times added that “even some Republican colleagues are growing publicly frustrated” with the right-wing freshman.

It can, however, get worse. In fact, Cruz seems to be going out of his way to make enemies and alienate people.

Just a few days ago, Cruz made an unannounced appearance at the FreedomWorks Texas Summit, where he openly mocked his Senate Republican colleagues, calling them “squishes” who don’t like to be held accountable.

“Here was their argument,” Cruz said of Senate Republican. “They said: ‘Listen, before you did this, the politics of it were great. The Democrats were the bad guys. The Republicans were the good guys. Now we all look like a bunch of squishes.’ “Well, there is an alternative: you could just not be a bunch of squishes.”

It’s worth pausing to appreciate the irony: Cruz was the one afraid of a debate on reducing gun violence, and it was his GOP colleagues who were kowtowed into ignoring common sense and popular will.

But even putting that aside, it’s unclear who the senator thinks he’s impressing by taking cheap shots at his ostensible allies. It’s reached the point at which even Jennifer Rubin wants the Texas Republican to stop “being a jerk.”

Wait, it gets worse.

In Cruz’s version of events, he’s the hero of his own morality play, killing gun reforms singlehandedly, eking out a surprise victory at the last minute, thanks to his awesome awesomeness.

Dave Weigel rained on Cruz’s parade.

But Cruz blurs the timeline. In his version of events, Democrats were convinced up to the last minute that they could break 60 votes on Manchin-Toomey (“the look of shock from the senior Democrats!”) and Republicans shamed Cruz for his … well, for his ballsiness, in this telling. Fellow Republicans, says Cruz, were “yelling at us at the top of their lungs! Look, why did you do this! As a result of what you did, I gotta go home and my constituents are yelling at me that I’ve got to stand on principle!”

Back on Earth, Democrats basically knew that they wouldn’t break 60 on the night before the series of gun votes; Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy tweeted his disappointment. Cruz was in those rooms with GOP senators, and I wasn’t, but if they were angry at him on the week of April 8, it wasn’t because they disagreed with his gun stance, or lacked principle. It was because they considered it astrategic.

Reporters who live in D.C. and spend too many daylight hours talking to politicians, we get that. This was a pretty simple story of ideological preferences and interest group pressure. But Cruz wants a voter back home, a Republican activist, to learn something else — a Jimmy Stewart tale, in which the rest of the GOP was ready to sell you out until one man stood up and thundered “nay.”

All of this dishonest grandstanding may make right-wing activists swoon, but it should also cause Cruz some trouble on Capitol Hill. Senators have traditionally forged relationships with their colleagues in order to build coalitions and be more effective in passing legislation. Cruz is going out of his way to do the opposite — scolding his veteran colleagues, lecturing them on his wisdom, and creating conditions in which just about everyone who knows him dislikes him.

This should make it all but impossible for Cruz to play a constructive role in the chamber, though that may not matter to him, since he doesn’t seem especially interested in governing anyway.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, April 30, 2013

May 5, 2013 Posted by | Politics, Senate | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Unfinished Business”: Next Time, The NRA Will Lose

How stupid does the Senate background-check vote look now, I ask the pundits and others who thought it was dumb politics for Obama and the Democrats to push for a vote that they obviously knew they were going to lose. I’d say not very stupid at all. The nosedive taken in the polls by a number of senators who voted against the bill, most of them in red states, makes public sentiment here crystal clear. And now, for the first time since arguably right after the Reagan assassination attempt—a damn long time, in other words—legislators in Washington are feeling political heat on guns that isn’t coming from the NRA. This bill will come back to the Senate, maybe before the August recess, and it already seems possible and maybe even likely to have 60 votes next time.

You’ve seen the poll results showing at least five senators who voted against the Manchin-Toomey bill losing significant support. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire is the only one of the five from a blue state, so it’s probably not surprising that she lost the most, 15 points. But Lisa Murkowski in Alaska lost about as much in net terms. Alaska’s other senator, Democrat Mark Begich, lost about half that. Republicans Rob Portman of Ohio and Jeff Flake of Arizona also tumbled.

Egad. Could it possibly be that those pre-vote polls of all these states by Mayor Bloomberg’s group were … right? All the clever people pooh-poohed them, because, well, they were done by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and because it just seemed impossible that 70 percent of people from a red state could support the bill. But the polls were evidently right, or at least a lot closer to right than the brilliant minds who laughed at Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey and Harry Reid.

Something remarkable is happening here. Now, the pressure is on the other side. It’s on the NRA—gathering this Friday and Saturday, incidentally, for its annual convention, its first annual convention since Newtown. I think you’ll agree with me that the group has put a tremendous amount of thought into how to change its image, do a little outreach, present a picture of itself that will confound its critics. Or not: Sarah Palin will open the meeting, and Glenn Beck will close it. The list of eight political speakers—current and former elected officials plus John Bolton—features not a single Democrat. They’re really battening down the hatches.

And they are going to lose. I talked with a couple of knowledgeable sources about what’s going on now. Five Republicans, I’m told, have expressed some degree of interest in the bill: Ayotte, who would appear be a near-certainty to switch her vote; Flake, also a likely; Murkowski; Dean Heller of Nevada; and Bob Corker of Tennessee. Tennessee seems like a tough state to be from when casting such a vote as a Republican, but Corker is someone who at least tries once in a while to have conversations with Democrats.

On the Democratic side, as you’ll recall, four Democrats voted against Manchin-Toomey: Begich, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Max Baucus of Montana. I’m told that Begich would like to switch, just needs to figure out how he can get there. Heitkamp is a bigger question mark. Pryor is probably lost.

That leaves Baucus. Shortly after the last vote, he announced he was retiring. That ought to mean that he should feel free enough to vote for the bill this time. It’s hard to know what Baucus actually believes—if that matters. He has a solid NRA career rating, but he’s cast enough votes the other way (supporting the assault weapons ban and the Brady waiting period) to make the other side suspicious. Before he announced he was quitting, the NRA was running ads against him.

What he believes may matter less than how he wants to spend his Senate afterlife. If he wants to stay in Washington and make money, he’ll be more likely to vote for Manchin-Toomey, because he’ll be dependent to some extent on Democratic money networks that were furious with him after the vote. If he just wants to move back to Montana, who knows.

That’s eight potential switches, where six are needed. One of those six, remember, is sure to be Harry Reid. He cast a procedural no vote because only senators who vote against a bill can bring it to the floor again, but obviously, if it is going to pass, he’ll vote for it. Even so getting to 60 will still be a heavy lift. And then there’s the House. So certain matters remain unclear.

But some things are quite clear. Manchin and Toomey deserve great credit for sticking with this. Democrat Kay Hagan of North Carolina, also up for reelection next year but a supporter of the bill, is every bit as at risk as Pryor and Begich are, and she makes them look like cowards. And clearest of all is the fact that, far from that vote being some kind of devastating blow to Obama or the Democratic Party, it accomplished a lot. It pulled a few bricks loose from the wall. Next time, that wall just might crumble.


By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, May 2, 2013

May 3, 2013 Posted by | Background Checks, Senate | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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