It’s difficult to remember now, but one of the last major items on the table for Congress before the novel coronavirus swept the globe last year was a gun control bill. Early in 2019, House Democrats passed the Bipartisan Background Checks Act, which would have established universal background checks by closing a loophole in existing law that exempts unlicensed gun sellers from performing checks, as licensed gun shops must. This measure sits squarely among those reforms that gun control advocates tend to call “common sense.” The public agrees: Polling the previous August showed more than 90 percent support for the policy; 22 states have already passed laws filling in at least some of the loophole for private sales. And that fall, President Trump engaged in talks about moving background checks forward with a bipartisan trio of lead negotiators in the Senate—Pat Toomey, Chris Murphy, and Joe Manchin.
Nothing came of those talks, and Congress was soon preoccupied with impeachment and the pandemic. But this week, Democrats introduced the Background Checks Expansion Act, or BCEA, putting gun control on the new Democratic Congress’s already crowded post-Covid docket alongside an immigration overhaul and the H.R. 1 package of voting reforms, which passed the House on Wednesday. Like the other two bills, and all other potential gun control bills, the BCEA is an ordinary piece of nonfiscal legislation that would have to reach a 60-vote threshold to overcome a filibuster and pass—budget reconciliation isn’t a real option here.
But unlike the other two, the passage of the BCEA would finally implement a policy Joe Manchin has been instrumental in pushing for the better part of a decade. It probably won’t happen unless Manchin changes his mind on the filibuster and encourages the caucus’s remaining holdouts to join him. And major gun control groups are already pushing for it: A letter from more than 60 progressive groups to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer urging the abolition of the filibuster early last month included Brady: United Against Gun Violence, March for Our Lives, and the Newtown Action Alliance as signatories.
Manchin nevertheless remains as intransigent as ever on the filibuster question in general. Asked on the Hill this past Monday about the circumstances under which he’d reconsider his support for it, he yelled “Never.” “Jesus Christ!” he said to reporters. “What don’t you understand about ‘never’?” And Manchin has already seen and made peace with Republicans in the Senate killing background check expansions twice this decade—once in 2013 and once in 2015. It should be said that these failures give lie to the idea, promoted by Manchin and others, that the filibuster facilitates bipartisanship. On both occasions, checks actually won the support of a bipartisan coalition of senators, and Manchin’s bill might have passed in 2013 with a bipartisan 54-vote majority were it not for the filibuster and its 60-vote threshold. Instead of Congress passing a policy supported by the vast majority of the American people and offered up by cooperative and cordial members of both parties, Congress passed nothing.
It is likely that this will happen again. Asked about the BCEA’s chances on CNN recently, Pat Toomey was pessimistic. “It’s theoretically possible,” he said, “but I’m not aware of a significant change in heart.” Absent that change in heart, all gun legislation will be doomed—not just background checks but the rest of the proposals for Congress that President Biden ran on, including a new assault weapons ban, a ban on online gun and parts sales, and the repeal of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which shields gun manufacturers from lawsuits over the use of their guns in criminal activity. Biden wasn’t the most ambitious of the primary candidates on gun policy, but his proposals would still be the most sweeping gun control measures implemented since Biden helped pass the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act and the original Federal Assault Weapons Ban as a senator in the early 1990s.
The gun problem has become unfathomably large in the quarter-century since. There are 400 million guns in this country, and the pandemic has done little to disrupt American gun culture—background-checked gun purchases were up 93 percent from March through July last year compared to the same period the year before. We will leave the crisis with many more guns and a revived libertarian streak within a conservative movement that began the year by storming Congress.
As our sociopolitical, economic, and environmental stressors compound in the years ahead, the American public at large will retain a greater capacity for violence than any other public in any other country in the developed world. When the next massacre arrives, Democratic voters will again rally to the party’s candidates and leaders in the hopes that they might prompt a federal legislative response and under the assumption that, sooner or later, with so many dead and so much time wasted, something will have to give. But this isn’t so. We are not fated to reach solutions to the challenges we face. And it’s ultimately not up to the majority of the American people whether we try.