A Shameful Day in the Senate

The NRA got its victory, but Michael Tomasky is confident that, years from now, we’ll look back on yesterday as the moment when the gun lobby overreached—and laid the groundwork for its own undoing.

04.18.13 8:45 AM ET

Every strong political movement, besotted with the fragrance of its own power, hits the point of overreach, and the pro-gun movement hit that point yesterday in the morally repulsive Senate vote on the background-checks bill. We all know the old cliché that the National Rifle Association has power because its members vote on the guns issue, while gun-control people aren’t zealots. Well, Wayne LaPierre and 46 craven senators, that “majority” of the Senate, have just created millions of zealots, and as furious as I am, I’m also strangely at peace, because I’m more confident than ever that the NRA will never, ever be stronger in Washington than it was yesterday.

Historians will see this recent debate, culminating in yesterday’s vote, as the time when the gun-control lobby grew and coalesced. The gun issue, since the 1970s a blunt instrument used mainly to bully rural-state Democrats, is going to start turning into the opposite: pressure on blue- and purple-state Republicans to vote at least for modest measures. And make no mistake, what the Senate voted on yesterday was modest; far too modest, in that we can’t even discuss banning the online sale of limitless amounts of ammunition. The NRA won this one, but as President Obama said in some of the most passionate remarks of his public life yesterday evening, this is just “round one.” More rounds are coming, and the balance of power is going to change.

You cannot oppose the will of 90 percent of the public and expect no consequences. You can’t have people saying what Rand Paul said, that monstrous comment of his about Newtown parents being “props,” and think that you haven’t offended and infuriated millions of people. You can’t introduce amendments that encourage more interstate transfer of weapons and give it the way-beyond-Orwellian name “safe communities” act and think that karma will never come back around on you. And you can’t sneer at the parents of dead 6-year-olds and expect that God isn’t watching and taking notes.

Sickening. The whole thing. The four cowardly Democrats, too. Max Baucus, Mark Begich, Mark Pryor, and Heidi Heitkamp. Heitkamp won’t face her voters again for five years. Baucus has been around long enough to be able to be bigger than this. Begich and Pryor, who face reelection next year, have the least lame excuses of all, but they are cowards too. They have to know they did the wrong thing. If Joe Manchin could do what he did—and trust me, I’m from West Virginia, and I know Joe, and our families knew each other, and the whole thing. If Manchin could do what he did, from a state every bit as tough on this issue as theirs, these four pygmies really have to be ashamed of themselves.

Manchin’s courage was remarkable. To say on national television yesterday morning that the NRA lied, just flat-out say it, is amazing. Yes, he has five years too before he faces the voters of West Virginia. We’ll see how that goes in time. I hope, in 2017, we don’t see him suddenly carrying the NRA’s water. But I don’t think so. I think once you leave the church, you leave. He’s like Keanu Reeves at the end of The Devil’s Advocate. He has left Satan’s embrace. Much credit is due Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey, too. I don’t know whether a Republican primary is now headed his way in 2016, but as right wing as he is on virtually every issue, he at least stepped forward and tried to be a legislator.

Obama’s words were the most powerful he’s delivered in years. Call it failed if you want, but this was leadership: knowing that he was probably going to lose on the Hill, but putting everything he had into the fight anyway. He took on not only the NRA and its whores in Congress, he took on the blasé complacency of a pundit class that said repeatedly: he’ll never win, so why do this; he should have struck while the iron was hot; he should have talked to Republicans more. Yes, it was clear that a challenge to the NRA was likely to lose, but that isn’t what always should dictate a politician’s actions. He behaved out of conviction. This is rare enough among politicians that Obama certainly should not be nitpicked for this or that little thing he did or didn’t do.

This was one of the blackest days in the Senate’s history. It’s right up there with the filibusters of civil-rights bills. And make no mistake, this is a civil-rights issue. The gun nuts—and obviously, not all gun owners are nuts, not even a majority—fulminate endlessly about their rights. Well, that little boy at the Sandy Hook school who got his jaw blown clean off, whose unimaginably brave mother insisted on an open casket so people would have to deal with the reality of what guns can do, had civil rights too, the first one of which is safety in his person. So did his classmates and teachers, and so did the hundreds, thousands of victims, a train of corpses that could stretch around the world, silenced in life, and silenced again yesterday by Mitch McConnell and 45 other people who now have a little bit of those victims’ blood splattered on their hands. They will yet be heard from.


CORRECTION: I originally forgot to include Mark Pryor as one of the Democrats who voted no. That paragraph has been reworked to include him. Apologies.