I couldn’t believe Wednesday night that some liberals were expressing indifference or even suspicion toward the House Democrats’ sit-in. I wouldn’t say this was all that widespread, but I did see it, and it was based on the fact that one of the bills they were demanding a vote on, the one banning people on watch lists from buying guns, is problematic from a civil-libertarian point of view.
Oh please. Do these people know history happening when they see it? The sit-in was about the two bills only in the most nominal sense. It was really about dead bodies. It was about the NRA and its stranglehold on their institution. It was about saying “enough.”
I wrote earlier this week that yes, the NRA won again on those four Senate votes, but “someday, this dam will break.” Well, it’s coming a hell of a lot faster than I thought it would. No, the dam isn’t broken—yet. That will still take a fair amount of time. But after Wednesday night, it’s now possible to see a different future, one in which the NRA is not all-powerful. It’s no longer crazy to think that its back can be broken.
Sure, there are serious civil liberties concerns about government lists. Here’s what the ACLU has to say about them. If you are a man with an Arabic name in particular, the risk of being put on one of these lists because of error or confusion is not inconsiderable. That has to be addressed, and a citizen has to be able to go to the government and demonstrate wrongful harm.
But everyone agrees on all this. As I watched the coverage Wednesday, every single Democrat I saw interviewed said as much. I wish I could retrieve for you what Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky told Chris Hayes late last night, but the video wasn’t posted on his site yet as I sat down to write. She said in essence: Of course, we all agree, fix the bill, build in an appeals process for individuals to challenge being put on the list. Given. In the meantime, actual dangerous people who deserve to be on that list can go buy assault weapons and mow down innocent people. Let’s stop that first, then we’ll fine-tune the bill.
What on earth is objectionable about that? Nothing. And anyway, the bill isn’t going to pass even if Paul Ryan does allow a vote. But it would have the effect of calling the Republicans’ bluff. That is, the standard Republican criticism of the bill has been precisely this civil-libertarian critique. So if the Democrats come to them en masse to say fine, we agree with you, let’s find a way to build in a workable appeals process, and the Republicans still vote against the bill, they will stand exposed, and everyone will know that civil liberty concerns aren’t what’s driving GOP opposition. Fear of Wayne LaPierre is. We all know this already anyway, but if there is a vote and they still vote against it, we’ll have proof.
Legislating is ugly business. The choices are usually between okay and not okay, or often between bad and much worse. You take what you can get. This is why the sit-in merits support and admiration (and if you really want to be a liberal who’s on the opposite side of the great John Lewis, be my guest). This is very different from the civil rights actions of the 1950s. Then, activists had a country to persuade; they had to move the mountain of public opinion. And so activists in Birmingham settled on segregated buses as the target that would tangibly and visibly make segregation stark for white Americans outside the South. They bided their time, deliberately chose Rosa Parks as the woman to do it, and slowly won public opinion over to their side.
But here, the public doesn’t have to be persuaded. It’s 80 or 90 percent on the Democrats’ side on guns. Even most NRA members support background checks, the subject of the other bill over which the Democrats staged their action. The boulder that has to be moved—or crushed—is the Republican Congress. So it’s up to congressional Democrats to make that fight, and they have to do it with the imperfect implements at their disposal, which means particular pieces of legislation that are bound to be deficient in one way or another.
And they’re finally making that fight. It was remarkable to see lawmakers holding those pieces of paper with the names of victims from Newtown and Orlando. That wasn’t about watch lists. It was about the ongoing holocaust that the NRA and the Republicans are abetting. It was all the more remarkable for the fact that it was done in an election year, when everyone’s supposed to be double-terrified of the NRA.
So the sit-in is ending as I write, on Thursday afternoon. But one of these days, the NRA will lose a vote. Two or three more Orlandos (which is of course two or three too many) will have the nation tearing its hair out. Democrats will finally stand firm, and enough Republicans from purple districts and states will defect. The stranglehold will end. And maybe in time, after LaPierre has gone off to whatever place eternity has reserved for him, the NRA will again become what it used to be, which is an organization that promotes reasonable Second Amendment rights but stops insisting that these death machines that were never intended to be in civilian hands deserve constitutional protection.
And when that time comes, historians will point to June 22, 2106 as the day the dam started to crack. I’m clear about which side I’m on.