Friday, February 1, 2013

Editorial: Gun-Shy Democrats

Some Democratic members of Congress aren’t ready to sign off just yet on the gun control package supported by President Obama and Democratic leaders. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has drafted an ambitious bill that would re-enact much of the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004, outlawing more than 150 types of semi-automatic weapons with military-style features, as well as high-capacity magazines capable of carrying more than 10 rounds.

As sensible as Feinstein’s bill may appear to many of us, it has no Republican co-sponsors and it is highly unlikely to get the 60 votes it will need to clear the Senate, much less get a favorable hearing in the Republican-controlled House.

So the only reason for Democrats to bring up such a bill this year is to get members of Congress on the record on gun control so they can use that stance in the next election. The last time that happened, in 1994, President Bill Clinton convinced Democratic leaders in Congress to push through a ban on military-style semi-automatic assault rifles and high-capacity magazines holding more than 10 bullets. House Speaker Tom Foley, Majority Leader Dick Gephardt and Judiciary Chairman Jack Brooks (D-Texas) warned Clinton that the assault weapons ban would cost many Democrats their seats. “Jack [Brooks] was convinced that if we didn’t drop the ban, the NRA would beat a lot of Democrats by terrifying gun owners,” Clinton remembered in his memoir, My Life.

Clinton noted, “Foley, Gephardt, and Brooks were right and I was wrong.” In that year’s election, Democrats lost eight Senate seats and 54 House seats, including Foley’s and Brooks’s, as Republicans took control in both chambers.

That was the same election in which George W. Bush defeated Gov. Ann Richards, who had angered gun enthusiasts with her veto of a bill to let private individuals carry concealed weapons. The Democratic penchant for gun control has proven a potent wedge to drive the formerly Democratic rural vote into the Republican column ever since.

Democrats already have lost many of those marginal rural districts, in Texas and elsewhere, but the survivors shouldn’t be expected to embrace a bill that is anathema to their constituents, particularly when it has no chance of passing.

Democrats might be able to pass a bill requiring universal background checks for gun buyers, but probably not much else. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), who sports an “A” rating from the NRA, surprised some gun control advocates when he came out in favor of universal background checks for gun buyers, including those at gun shows. That’s not so much of a stretch, as a nationwide poll by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research showed 89% of respondents (and 74% of NRA members) support universal background checks. The survey also showed 70% of respondents supported bans on semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

But neither that poll, nor other recent polls showing wide margins in favor of assault weapons bans, break down respondents into urban, suburban and rural areas. The National Gun Policy Survey in 2001 found that 65.2% of rural residents had a gun in the household, compared with 35.3% in towns, 29.5% in suburbs and 21.7% in cities, and that same survey found that 57% of urban residents supported gun controls over the right to own guns while 63% of rural residents supported gun rights over controls. Our own anecdotal data suggests that residents of rural areas and small towns are still more protective of those gun rights than their urban cousins.

[Editor's Note: After this was written, we discovered a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. Poll conducted Dec. 17-18, 2012, that sampled 620 people nationwide and found the same level of 13% support for "no restrictions on guns" among urban, surburban and rural respondents, and 66% support for some restrictions in cities, 71% in suburbs and 79% in rural areas, but the sample was so small, the margin of error (from +/- 5% in the suburbs to +/- 8.5% among rural respondents) and the results at such a wide variance from past polls that we discount it.]

If you want to pass more restrictive gun controls, start working on Republicans in suburban districts, which appear to be the prime targets for disaffected youths who turn up in public places with semiautomatic weapons. And work for common sense in state laws.

Supreme Court decisions in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) and McDonald v. Chicago (2010) that affirmed the individual right to a gun for home defense sent mixed signals on whether the state may restrict the carrying of arms outside the homes. The wording of the Second Amendment may be ambiguous, but the phrase “well-regulated militia” has long been recognized to give the states and federal government authority to regulate the public use of firearms and the ownership of high-powered weapons.

We think the states have become too lax in the issuance of licenses to allow concealed handguns. Most states require little or no training to carry a concealed weapon. For example, Texas requires applicants to take a 10-hour class and pass a written exam as well as a shooting exam to show basic proficiency, and clear a background check. And the shooting exam only requires the applicant to hit the fixed target on 70% of shots, which hardly qualifies the licensee for a shootout with an armed “bad guy.” And gun rights activists are pushing hard for a federal reciprocity law, which passed the House in 2011, which would require states to recognize each others’ concealed handgun licenses.

The rise in concealed weapons licenses as well as “Stand Your Ground” laws, which provide tacit encouragement for gun carriers to brandish their weapon rather than retreat and call the police, have led to tragic results, most prominently in the case of Trayvon Martin, the teenager who was shot to death Feb. 26, 2012 in Sanford, Fla., by a vigilante who assumed Martin was a potential prowler and confronted him about it.

States should require gun owners seeking a concealed-weapon permit not only to get more weapons training, but they also should be required to show proof of liability insurance in case their stray shots hit innocent bystanders. Car owners are required to show proof of insurance to get their car registered and we should expect no less from people who insist on their right to carry guns. After all, good intentions won’t make up for poor marksmanship or reckless reaction when it comes to paying hospital bills of the wounded.

Missed Opportunity for Reform

President Obama gave a great second inaugural address, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s filibuster reform package fell far short of expectations. The new rule makes it marginally easier to get a bill to the Senate floor or a vote on presidential nominees. But it still allows the Republicans to stop all legislation and nominations that don’t have 60 supporters and it still doesn’t require opponents to explain their opposition, much less require them to keep on their feet talking about it.

Much of the blame is getting dumped on Reid, but we think he found himself working a Democratic caucus with many senators who liked the old system or opposed the stronger “talking filibuster” proposal that also would require filibuster supporters to keep 41 supporters on the Senate floor, rather than the current rule that requires filibuster opponents to keep 60 votes on the floor. In this case, he was more of a Majority Vote Counter than Majority Leader, but that is the nature of the beast that is the Democratic caucus.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) put up a good fight for reform, but several Democratic senators were concerned that reforming the filibuster could backfire on them next time Republicans take over Congress. However, we believe that recent power grabs by Republicans at the state level show they are entirely willing to push aside all precedents and appeals to fairness and ride roughshod over the minority when it helps them enact their agenda. They’ll do away with the filibuster in a New York minute if they find an advantage in its demise.

With the House in Republican hands, Democrats cannot expect to pass any really progressive bills anyway, but the filibuster could become critical when it comes to filling judicial and bureaucratic positions that require Senate approval. If Republicans continue to obstruct Obama’s appointments, and a recent decision by the US Court of Appeals in D.C. stands that invalidates recess appointments by the president, the Democratic majority may be forced to revisit the rules in mid-session. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2013
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