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The Democrats’ Filibuster to Nowhere

Why are they rallying around a questionable policy that won’t put a dent in America’s gun-violence epidemic?

Pete Marovich/Getty Images

For years, Democrats have implored their leaders to display passion for the ideas they care about, instead of the poll-tested bloodlessness that too often defines them. Senator Chris Murphy’s 14-hour, 50-minute filibuster over gun control was a strange combination of both. 

Murphy and the 37 colleagues who joined him in the talk-a-thon were obviously committed to stirring the conscience of a nation for action on guns in the wake of last weekend’s mass murder in Orlando. “Every single day there are 80 sets of families who begin the process of grief surrounding the taking of a life through a firearm,” Murphy said at one point. “And their process of healing for many of them is encumbered by the fact that their leaders are not doing anything to stop it.”

But what were Murphy and friends really asking for? A narrow set of wedge-issue measures, one of which would carry terrible implications for civil liberties. And Democrats readily admit they chose these measures, instead of more far-reaching ideas that would really target dangerous mass shootings, because they polled well.

The official goal of Murphy’s filibuster was to get a vote on two amendments to the Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill. One expands the criminal and mental-health background check system to cover all private sales, like gun shows and online retailers. The other, known as “No Fly No Buy,” would ban anyone on the FBI’s terrorist watch list in the past five years from obtaining a gun. The theory goes that if we can ban terror suspects from flying on an airplane (as we do for certain watchlist members), we should ban them from purchasing firearms. By 2 a.m. Thursday morning, Senate Republicans had agreed to hold votes on the amendments, but not necessarily to approve them. 

This isn’t an enormous victory. The Senate voted on the same two provisions last December, after the San Bernardino shooting. They failed. The universal background check bill also went down after Sandy Hook. It’s fine to use the Orlando shooting as an opportunity to see if senators have moved on the issues. But if the Democrats are trying to get vulnerable Republicans on the record against gun-control measures before the election, that’s already been done.

Furthermore, it’s hard not to have mixed feelings about the measures themselves. Universal background checks are needed to close the private sale loophole, though if the system still suffers from missing records, that would also need to be addressed. But the terrorist watchlist is not a good tool for identifying terrorists. In fact, if the gun restriction were in place in the recent past, it would have prevented Ted Kennedy, civil-rights hero John Lewis, and a seven-month-old baby from purchases.

The process of getting onto the watchlist is murky, and it’s nearly impossible to contest the designation. The FBI has unaccountable power to label people terrorists without “irrefutable evidence” or “concrete facts,” according to interagency guidelines. This is probably why more than 1.5 million people were added to the watchlist from 2009 to 2013, with almost all the submissions accepted. As many as half of those on the watchlist have no terror affiliation, according to the government’s own documents. Yet these placements can strand U.S. citizens abroad and make everyday pursuits nearly impossible. And it appears to discriminate against those with Muslim-sounding names.

Even if you managed to get removed from the watchlist, you would still be banned from firearm purchases for five years, despite being innocent of any crime (this is clearly being done to incorporate Orlando shooter Omar Mateen, who was once on the list in 2014 but was taken off). As Mark Joseph Stern writes for Slate, this sets a  precedent of using an arbitrary, capricious designation on a covert list to restrict personal freedoms. Even if you oppose the Second Amendment, that should be chilling. 

When liberals like me start to agree with the National Rifle Association about how “due process protections should be put in place that allow law-abiding Americans who are wrongly put on a watchlist,” something is deeply wrong. So why are Democrats supporting this?

They’ve pointed to opinion surveys. Universal background checks and closing the so-called “terror loophole” have broad bipartisan support. In January, the Pew Research Center polled both ideas at over 80 percent, with little difference between Democrats and Republicans. More contentious issues, like a federal gun-licensing system or a ban on assault weapons, feature a divide, with Democratic support much stronger.

Democrats don’t deny their strategy. “We want to start with these two common-sense measures,” Murphy said late into his filibuster, because they were “the most likely to get bipartisan votes” and “as noncontroversial as you get.”

So Senate Democrats chose popular wedge issues to make Republicans squirm. And they are squirming; look at presumptive nominee Donald Trump vowing to talk to the NRA about the terror loophole. But what is that really accomplishing? Democrats candidly don’t believe anything will actually pass the Senate, after spending Wednesday and Thursday trying to reach a compromise. Even if the Senate finds a path forward, House Republicans are unlikely to take it up. And making a statement for November when these bills have already been voted on before doesn’t seem like much of a victory.

If the goal was to rah-rah the public around action on guns, it might have been better served by highlighting policies that might actually work to reduce gun violence. For example, Connecticut’s gun-permitting law has been quite successful. Research from Missouri, meanwhile, shows that the homicide rate jumped when the state repealed its permit law. But Democratic gun-control proponents in Congress never discuss registries or licensing.

Another policy idea that might actually make a difference was the law of the land for 10 years. In the first Clinton administration, Congress banned assault weapons that have no purpose for hunting or self-protection, just quick and brutal slaughter. Firearm homicide rates subsequently dropped throughout the 1990s, and while we cannot attribute that entirely to the assault weapons ban, the drop did flatten out as soon as Congress failed to extend it.

Even Fox News hosts, in the wake of Orlando, are admitting that assault weapons should be off-limits to ordinary Americans. But that’s not what Democrats are rallying around.  

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid gave a speech Thursday supporting the assault weapons ban. “Does anybody think these assault weapons are good for hunting or protecting your family?” Reid asked. But while he insisted that we should renew that prohibition, he said, “The NRA and the Gun Owners of America, they love to sell these guns.” So instead, Democrats pushed for measures with more consensus.

At the same time Reid was saying this, he insisted that “Senate Democrats will not cave” to gun-rights groups. But he had actually explained precisely how and why they cave, and keep caving. Democrats abandoned outright bans of dangerous weapons a long time ago in favor of wedge issues that sound “sensible” (but really aren’t, at least in the case of the terror watchlist). It’s a somewhat craven tactic that is less about guns than politics. That’s fine—I’m never shocked by politicians playing politics—but when it’s dressed up as an expression of sincerity and passion, I get a little ill.

We have a gun violence crisis in America, and any efforts to raise attention to the issue should be lauded. But picking and choosing among less effective but nicer-sounding ways to combat it for political expediency is beneath the dignity of those who claim to want to stop the killing.