Shot Down

Tuesday’s Senate vote shows gun control is back as a hot-button issue.


The lopsided 90-8 defeat of a Senate bill that would have shielded gun manufacturers and dealers from lawsuits by victims of gun crimes was remarkable — not least for the way it came about. It’s not every day that a primary candidate (John Kerry) takes time out of campaigning to get back to Washington to vote on a bill (he voted against); nor is it usual, to say the least, that a bill’s sponsors vote against their own a bill, especially not a bill that was expected to pass with bipartisan support. Welcome to the politics of gun control — and expect to hear a whole lot more about the issue this election season.

The bill failed because that some Republicans joined Democrats in tacking on two
amendments, one extending the ban on assault weapons due
to expire this September, the other mandating background checks for weapons sold at
gun-shows — both, obviously, anethema to the gun lobby.

Sadly and ironically, the defeat was also a reminder of the National
Rifle Association’s vast power in the legislature. When it got wind of the amendments, the NRA fired off an email to senators urging them to vote “no” on the very bill whose passage had been the NRA’s top legislative priority.

As the Washington Post points out:

“To a large extent, the bill — and its fate — reflected the Senate’s
ambivalence on gun control: It is a difficult and divisive issue, especially in
an election year. Although a majority wanted to stop what it regarded as
unwarranted lawsuits against legitimate gunmakers and gun dealers, majorities
also wanted to keep the ban on assault weapons and crack down on shady deals at
gun shows. For purists on both sides, it appeared that no bill was preferable to
one that contained provisions they deeply opposed.”

President Bush has played both sides of the gun-control debate. On the one hand, he supported passage of the original bill as a necessary protection of law-biding gun-manufacturers and sellers from “frivolous lawsuits.” Vice-president Dick Cheney was even in the Senate ready to cast his — as it turned out — unneeded
tie-breaking “yes” vote. Bush has also spoken out in favor of the assault-weapons
ban and the background checks, but insisted they not be attached to the
bill.

Kerry took Senate floor and the opportunity to criticize Bush:

“I believe the [National
Rifle Association] leadership is defending the indefensible … President Bush
promised to support the gun-show loophole and assault-weapons ban, and now under
pressure, he is running away from his promise.”

Both Kerry and now ex-candidate Senator John Edwards voted for the two
amendments. Kerry voted against the bill, while Edwards left before voting. Kerry is playing a delicate game, too. He’s very gun friendly for a Democrat, on the ostensible grounds that he’s a hunter.

Even if the bill passed with the amendments, it was unlikely that they would
have survived in the House of Representatives, where gun-control legislation
faces more opposition in than the Senate. Nevertheless, the possibility of the two
amendments that the NRA hated riding on the bill that it wanted passed, was
unacceptable to it and its supporters in the Senate.

Sen. Larry E. Craig, the Idaho Republican who sponsored the anti-lawsuit bill, urged
the defeat of his own bill, saying, “I now believe it is so dramatically wounded that I would urge my colleagues to
vote against it. ”

The Republicans wanted to debate the amendments in the conference committee,
but the Democrats insisted on an open-floor debate. Craig blamed his Democratic co-sponsor of
the bill, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle for the bill’s failure,
while Daschle fired back that:

“It is mystifying that the Senate Republican leadership would
defeat the bipartisan gun liability legislation that Senator Craig and I have
worked on together because of two provisions supported by both President Bush and
more than a dozen Republicans.”

Daschle’s support of the bill, given his upcoming re-election campaign in
pro-gun South Dakota is not so
“mystifying,” but neither was the Senate Republicans’ behavior, some notable exceptions aside. The NRA said the word and many Republicans and some
Democrats heeded it.

Though the gun-lobby has yet to lose a case against victims of gun-violence,
the defeat delays the passage of a legislative cushion from legal assault that
the NRA is very eager to see in place. But this does not change the fact that the
two gun control amendments that were defeated along with the pro-gun lobby bill,
are unlikely to pass again anytime soon — unfortunate given
that the assault weapons ban will expire this September.

The Senate episode was an illustration of the NRA’s muscle and gun-control
advocates should seize the momentum of the bill’s surprised defeat to put the NRA
on the defensive. As the New
York Times
pointed out in an editorial:

“The Senate standoff shows there can be no finessing the issue by
the White House. Nor is there any honest interest in compromise by the gun lobby.
Trading support for the shabby immunity measure in exchange for the two
amendments, as some proposed, was never a good deal. Civil lawsuits are a
powerful tool for achieving lifesaving changes in gun-industry practices…The
supporters of sensible gun control laws should now turn their efforts to reviving
the assault weapons ban and closing the gun-show loophole — without any Faustian
bargains.”

Democrats like Dianne Feinstein, the California Senator who sponsored the
assault weapons ban, are counting on Kerry to bring gun control to the forefront
of the national debate this election. As
Feinstein
said:

“You can be sure it’s going to be in the
presidential campaign as a bona fide issue as to whether the American people want
AK-47s, street sweepers and Uzis sold once again.”

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