The single greatest impediment to reining in gun violence in America isn’t the House of Representatives, President Donald Trump, or even the Supreme Court. It’s Mitch McConnell. Virtually every path to vastly reducing the number of Americans who die in senseless shootings runs through the Senate majority leader. Time and time again, he has proudly erected a roadblock.
Gun control has gained new attention, as it always does, by the latest spasm of mass death. Last weekend’s massacres in El Paso, Texas, where a white nationalist killed 22 people in a Walmart, and Dayton, Ohio, where another gunman killed nine people in a bar in less than 30 seconds, increased pressure on federal lawmakers to act. On Monday, McConnell responded to those calls by largely trying to defuse them.
“Today, the president called on Congress to work in a bipartisan, bicameral way to address the recent mass murders which have shaken our nation,” he said in a statement. “Senate Republicans are prepared to do our part.” He cited past efforts by lawmakers that did nothing to tighten the process by which Americans buy firearms. At the same time, he did not respond to calls by Democratic lawmakers to cut short the August recess to address mass shootings.
The New Republic’s Alex Pareene recently described McConnell as the “nihilist-in-chief,” arguing that his political career evinces no higher values than the relentless accumulation of power. There may be no finer example of the senator’s cynical approach to American government than his fierce opposition to gun control, for which he reaps a political windfall. He closely aligned himself with the National Rifle Association (NRA) early in his political career, eventually taking millions of dollars in campaign donations from its network, and has long fed the right-wing paranoia that Democrats are coming for your guns.
After a gunman killed 20 elementary students and six teachers in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, President Barack Obama pressured Congress to take action. Even some Republicans, notably Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey, spoke up in favor of modest reforms. McConnell did not. As minority leader at the time, he could not directly block legislation from reaching the floor. But he could misconstrue it to his heart’s content. Barely one month after the Sandy Hook massacre, McConnell sent a vivid warning to his supporters. “Our Founders fought a revolution to secure our rights,” the email read. “They would have been appalled by what they heard from an American president the other day. President Obama has the left wing media in a frenzy. And, like his old Chief of Staff, he is determined to not waste a crisis. The gun-grabbers are in full battle mode. And they are serious.”
Politicians generally like to take credit for their accomplishments. For McConnell, victory lies in what isn’t accomplished, and he sets expectations accordingly. After a gunman killed twelve people at a California bar last November, McConnell told reporters that it was “highly unlikely there will be restrictions passed” when the new Congress convened in January, as though he were helpless to change that predicted outcome. House Democrats passed a series of major bills that would strengthen the federal background-check process in February by a substantial margin, including five GOP votes. McConnell, who largely controls which bills reach the Senate floor, hasn’t allowed a vote on it yet.
He’s done this not because these bills are unpopular or unconstitutional; they aren’t. It’s simply because McConnell, and those who prop up his political career, oppose them. Some things—confirming conservative judges, cutting taxes for wealthy Americans, deregulating the financial industry—are always on the table in his Senate. Other ideas, such as universal background checks or an assault-weapons ban, exist beyond the realm of possibility to him. “If I’m still the majority leader in the Senate think of me as the Grim Reaper,” he told an audience in April, speaking broadly about progressive policies. “None of that stuff is going to pass.”
This approach requires a little more creativity these days. The NRA’s legendary political heft is currently diluted by internal power struggles as well as legal and financial woes. The gun-control movement, by comparison, gathered strength after a gunman killed 17 people last year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Those deaths prompted Trump to meet with survivors to discuss potential solutions to gun violence. Texas Senator John Cornyn, the second highest-ranking Republican senator at the time, said it would be a “travesty” if lawmakers didn’t consider bills to tighten the background-check process. But in McConnell’s Senate, it was business as usual. As the post-Parkland debate simmered, the Kentucky senator turned the legislative body’s schedule toward a banking-deregulation bill.
When all else fails, McConnell’s preferred tactic is feigned powerlessness. Congress, he argued last year, simply can’t stop mass shootings. “I don’t think at the federal level there’s much that we can do other than appropriate funds,” McConnell told a Kentucky audience in July 2018, pointing to federal programs for enhancing school safety. “You would think, given how much it takes to get on an American plane or given how much it takes to get into courthouses, that this might be something that we could achieve, but I don’t think we could do that from Washington, I think it’s basically a local decision.”
McConnell is hardly the only Republican lawmaker who resists gun control. But his colleagues usually make an argument of some kind to support their stance—that the Democrats’ proposals wouldn’t actually prevent massacres, that the Second Amendment ties their hands, that it would only constrain law-abiding gun owners and not would-be killers, and so on. These points can be debated through the democratic process. But McConnell rarely challenges his opponents’ arguments or offers substantive points of his own because he doesn’t want a debate. Democracy is not his style. The Senate’s legislative power exists only to serve his interests, and stopping the periodic slaughter of Americans isn’t one of them.