Voices: Gun reform’s biggest enemy is a Senate with too much time on its hands

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Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer (EPA-EFE)
Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer (EPA-EFE)

The Senate is typically the place where gun legislation goes to die. But in the wake of last week’s massacre in Uvalde, Texas, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell gave his blessing to Senator John Cornyn to negotiate with Democrats on gun legislation, and that made some people think this time might be different.

Last week, we ran through all the reasons to be optimistic and pessimistic, as well as which GOP Senators might just get to “yes”. The winds are still blowing against those who want to see comprehensive gun legislation pass, but an opportunity was there.

But then, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer made a move that if these latest negotiations fall through will be seen as a fatal error: He let Senators go home for a pre-planned recess.

Recess is typically an enemy of any legislation – Tea Party protesters famously confronted legislators at town halls in their states and districts as Congress deliberated on Obamacare in 2009 – but with gun legislation, the passing of time often proves deadly. The flurry of mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde still feel fresh; the horror of a white supremacist killing Black patrons in the former and another murdering children in the latter rattles the conscience. But eventually time will pass, the urgency will fade, and too many people will forget.

The conservative response to last week’s atrocity has already gathered steam. For all the angry protests at the National Rifle Association holding its annual meeting in Houston so close to the shooting, the gun rights organization ultimately further entrenched itself. As my colleague Andrew Feinberg wrote, chief executive Wayne LaPierre used his speech to essentially recycle the same lines that he used after the Sandy Hook massacre almost a decade ago.

And when former president Donald Trump took to the stage, he laid into Republicans who backed out of the event, such as Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Mr Cornyn. He also slammed efforts to pass gun legislation and, without a hint of irony, criticized President Joe Biden for politicizing the event – ignoring the fact that he himself received millions in campaign donations from the NRA.

“Every time a disturbed or demented person commits such a hideous crime, there’s always a grotesque effort by some in our society to use the suffering of others to advance their own extreme political agenda,” he said, also carrying out the NRA’s favorite pivot and shifting the discussion to talk about mental health. Mr McConnell might be the Republican with the most power in Washington, but while he might be responsible for getting as much of Mr Trump’s agenda as he could through Congress, he lacks Mr Trump’s sway over GOP voter opinion.

Now any Republican who jumps on board this legislation risks angering conservative base voters who side with Mr Trump and the NRA, which despite the fact it has significantly weakened is still popular. Wherever overall public opinion might lie, any legislator seen as negotiating with Democrats is now in the conservative voters’ sights.

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