Opinion

Gun control is the perfect weapon against the filibuster

If Republicans want to block extremely popular measures like background checks, at least make them do it the hard way

The coronavirus pandemic is not yet over (and many states are relaxing their controls far too quickly), but with vaccinations proceeding quickly in every state, the end is in sight. Normal life is beginning to return, for good and ill — most notably in the return of regular gun murder sprees. Two deadly mass shootings have made headlines in just the last week, one at several massage parlors in Atlanta, and one in a Boulder supermarket. I didn't even realize until starting to write this article that there have been five other mass shootings this week, which presumably got less attention because "only" two people were actually killed.

Once again we are seeing the typical calls for "thoughts and prayers" from Republicans, and demands for Democrats to do something running into the logjam of the Senate filibuster, as has happened dozens of times before. But this time just might be different. A gun control bill would be a perfect vehicle to reform the filibuster so it is no longer an insurmountable obstacle to normal legislation.

The political background here, of course, is that since about 2007 the Senate minority has filibustered almost every piece of normal legislation, but conservative Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin (W.V.) and Sen. Krysten Sinema (Ariz.) are unwilling to get rid of it entirely. That has meant any gun control bill needs 60 votes in the Senate, and therefore can't pass.

However, Manchin has recently suggested a willingness to consider reforms to the process of the filibuster to make it much more difficult to execute. Today it takes just one Senate staffer to reply to an email to raise the 60-vote requirement, but if the obstructive minority were required to maintain a large presence on the floor to filibuster — like if they had to keep 41 senators on the floor at all times, around the clock — it would become much harder to maintain. (President Biden has also recently come out for this kind of reform.) Nobody wants to stay up all night for weeks on end, especially not elderly senators who have fundraising and vacations on the calendar. A determined majority could certainly break at least a few filibusters of this type during a congressional session.

I have previously suggested using H.R. 1, a huge expansion of voting rights, as a vehicle to push filibuster reform. But a modest gun control package is probably even better. A requirement for universal background checks has polled for years at around 90 percent support. A mandatory 30-day waiting period has polled at 75 percent support. The House has also passed a background check bill already.

What's more, gun control has long been a pet issue of Manchin specifically. (It's a rather odd fixation for a West Virginia senator, suggesting genuine personal commitment.) He even assembled a small bipartisan coalition in support of a background checks bill after the Sandy Hook school shooting, though of course it was not enough to overcome the filibuster.

Now, reforms like this would not end the problem of gun violence. America is simply swimming in guns (400 million of them) and for the indefinite future it will surely be possible for a determined criminal to get his or her hands on one, or several. But these policies might make a substantial dent. Mass shooters often have a history of violent crime — indeed, many should not have been allowed to buy their guns even under current law. A centralized, efficient background check system would certainly keep weapons out of the hands of many would-be murderers, including non-spree killers.

Many others buy their weapons immediately before committing their crime — suggesting an impulsive motivation that might fade if they had to wait for a few weeks. Indeed, the Boulder shooter bought his guns just six days before opening fire, and the Atlanta shooter just hours before. And aside from mass shootings, a great many other violent crimes and suicides are done impulsively. A clever Berkeley study found that immediately after gun shows in Las Vegas, neighboring parts of California (where gun laws are much more strict) saw an increase in gun-related deaths and injuries of 70 percent. Other studies have found that a waiting period of just a few days might cut gun suicides by 7-11 percent, and gun homicides by 17 percent.

So we have some reasonable reforms that happen to be extremely popular and will at least start to deal with an incredibly upsetting problem. It's the perfect issue to put Republicans on the spot as they obstruct something almost everyone wants, and to put pressure on Manchin and company to reform the filibuster so other vital legislation can get through.

It seems Senate Democrats are already thinking along these lines. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has promised to put the background checks bill on the Senate floor, and another pro-filibuster holdout Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has signaled her support for reform. Gun control groups are planning to pressure Manchin and Sinema. The timing is not ideal, since the upcoming Senate calendar is already taken up with confirmation votes and a two-week recess, but it likely matters little. If past history is any guide, mass shootings will keep happening until the government does something to stop them.

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