The NRA Can Still Lose

Yes, an assault-weapons ban is dead. But, argues Michael Tomasky, a decent gun bill still stands a chance of passage—provided five red-state Democrats do the right thing.

Matters look bleak indeed when 50 senators vote for a measure requiring that any bill changing gun laws get a two-thirds majority. Nothing else, not taxes, not anything (except some internal Senate rules), requires a two-thirds vote. That 50 senators voted this way—including six Democrats—shows what a collection of cowards and lickspittles these people are on the issue. If the NRA said gun bills should only be passed after sundown on Tuesdays between Columbus Day and the Ascension of Abdul Baha, they’d rush in with amendments stipulating that it also had to be raining. And yet, there is still a chance—yes, even with the assault-weapons ban dead—that the Senate at least will pass some fairly decent legislation. The NRA can still lose here. It’s important that you know this. They don’t want you to.

The demented legislation that passed recently emerged from the mysterious gray matter of Mike Lee, the Utah senator. It proved again the maxim, a maxim being re-proven about every few days in contemporary Washington, that no matter how far right the GOP is, it’s never far enough. A two-thirds majority to change any gun law! Someone like Utah Republican Orrin Hatch had to know deep down what a procedural and constitutional abomination this was. But they all had to vote for it on the Republican side—except Mark Kirk, who’s from Illinois. The roll of Democratic dishonor featured Joe Manchin (WV), Max Baucus (MT), Joe Donnelly (IN), Kay Hagan (NC), Heidi Heitkamp (ND), and Mark Pryor (AK).

It didn’t pass, of course, because anything like that needs 60 votes in the Senate. But the mere fact that it got 50 is chilling. Yet even so, a decent bill on background checks is possible. It actually would make a difference, maybe a big difference—maybe a bigger difference than the already failed assault-weapons ban.

Consider these humble facts. Right now, only around 2.5 percent of gun crimes are committed using assault weapons. Granted they are the high-profile and especially disgusting ones, like Newtown. But most gun crimes are committed with handguns. In nine out of 10 crimes, the assailant was not the original gun purchaser (all these statistics come from the folks at Third Way, several of whom, before they started that organization, came from gun-control work). The ages of most of these offenders are 18, 19, 20. But: it is illegal, federally, to own a gun under the age of 21. So ipso facto, these assailants didn’t buy the gun from the store or licensed dealer (in most cases). They got them some other way. That way is usually through private sale.

Now, on background checks: today only 17 states require some kind of background check. Some require them for stores only, others extend to private sales and re-sales. Go to and snoop around. You can see the kinds of things you can buy on the private market, and for not as much money as you’d think. The home page these days even features a heading called “Feinstein’s favorites,” a mocking reference to Dianne Feinstein, featuring AR-15s, AK-47s, Uzis, and others. Cute.

It’s pretty hard to stop the trafficking of guns to people who might use them for malign purposes when 33 states require no background checks at all. And so, the bill currently being negotiated by four senators would impose background checks for virtually all private sales.

The senators are the aforementioned Manchin and Kirk, plus New York’s Chuck Schumer and Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn. So you’ve got two Democrats and two Republicans, with each side split between one NRA toady and one pro-gun-control person. Amazingly fair and reasonable, for today’s Senate. Their only point of disagreement right now is over whether a private seller should be forced to keep a record of the sale. Three—including Manchin!—agree. Coburn says no. The whole thing may break down over this.

But if Coburn were to come around here or some kind of compromise could be worked out, then the agreement would move to the full Senate. There the questions will be: will any Republicans back it, what Democrats will support it, and can a filibuster be defeated?

I talked to one source who said that some Republican offices have said, “Well, if it’s good enough for Coburn, it’s probably good enough for our boss.” These wouldn’t be Republicans from the out-there states, but there are enough of them from blue and purple states to get to 60. Provided, that is, the Democrats stand firm. The problems here are likely to be Baucus, Pryor, Hagan, Mark Begich, and Mary Landrieu. All face reelection in 2014.

They’re terrified of the NRA in their states, of course. But athwart the NRA stand, you know, the people. Mayors Against Illegal Guns has done polling in these states and found: in Pryor’s Arkansas, 84 percent (PDF) favor mandatory background checks (remember a few days ago when Pryor sniffed that he’d listen not to Bloomberg but to the voters of his state? Well, listen!). In Landrieu’s Louisiana, it’s 85 percent (PDF). In Baucus’s Montana, it’s 79 percent (PDF). And in Hagan’s North Carolina, it’s 90 percent (PDF). The group didn’t poll Alaska. But even allowing for the fact that the state elected Mama Big Gulp as its governor, the Alaska number has to be a solid majority.

Then there’s the question of the threatened filibuster by Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. And then, even if we get past all that, there’s the nutty House to deal with. It’s an awfully hard slog.

But even if we get no legislation out of this, here’s what we need to get. These five Democrats, along with their fellow red-staters, need to stand as one and say to the NRA that something that’s so common-sense, that was good enough for Tom Coburn (assuming that turns out to be the case), that is supported by a majority of their voters, is something they are going to support, period. And they’ll win. Democrats need to learn that you’re far better off taking a stand than looking like a water-carrier. The NRA is never going to love them anyway. If some Democrats in red states can go against the group and win, gun politics will change.