It likely doesn’t feel like it, but gun-control advocates have made massive strides of late. There’s a problem for them, though: The swift action witnessed in some diverse states across the nation hasn’t translated to action in Washington. This is no secret to those advocates and survivors, which is why some leading congressional voices on the tragically unique problem of American gun violence are trying to go old school and forge relationships to help them deliver.
With the atmosphere in Washington dripping with partisan rancor, the animosity is tangible at the Capitol even through face masks. That’s why on paper even the most basic gun-control measures – like tightening loopholes in the current federally mandated background check system – seem destined for failure in these marble halls that were only recently smeared in blood.
“All politics is now national. At least when you spend your time staring into bright, ego-stroking lights and lenses of any shape and every size”Matt Laslo
Still, a bipartisan group of newer and veteran lawmakers aren’t giving up hope. They also aren’t overpromising, because that was so 2018.
After the 2018 midterms, there was a sense of excitement in the air. The fresh and young freshman class energized each other. You could feel their almost limitless optimism. And gun-control was a key part of their agenda. After all, some 17 House Democrats were swept into power after not just promising, but vowing to do all they could to curtail gun violence.
This contemporary, if brief, era of good feelings is a distant memory now.
“I have to say that it is a lot harder to be able to create the policy and change,” sophomore Democratic Congresswoman Lucy McBath of Georgia said Thursday at a bipartisan gun-control e-event hosted by advocacy group 97-Percent.
McBath lost her 17-year-old boy, Jordan Davis, in 2012 – an unimaginable (though all too real for too many Americans) loss which spurred her on this journey that landed her in the Capitol. But you get to the Capitol through the pavement. Blacktop and marble have very different feels.
“I think when you are working on the ground — the grassroots, you know, mobilizing, and as a survivor and as a victim myself, you know — we have the sense of urgency that we know, we see every single day, what’s happening in communities around the country, we want to get it done,” McBath said. “We want to save as many lives as we can.”
While she remains hopeful, her tune has changed.
“But to really look at it realistically, we know the change is slowly evolving. It is a culture that we’re having to change, and it takes time to do so,” McBath said. “So that is probably the thing that has been maybe the most distressing to me.”
That’s the curious thing about the debate in Washington – it seems truly detached from much of the nation. Sure, polls show upwards of 80% of Americans support background checks (the same ones that have been blocked in the Senate for years). In just the past three years various new restrictions — ranging from limiting magazine capacity to enhancing background checks – passed and were signed by Republican governors in Vermont, Florida, Ohio and Nevada.
“But today’s politicos seem to be forgetting their constitutional mandate: To represent their home state and their people. On gun-control, that’s something this bipartisan group of lawmakers is trying to convince their fellow lawmakers of: Even in this Fox NewsMax-era, politics is still a local sport”Matt Laslo
Even when Republican governors embrace gun-control measures, Washington’s political class remains insulated. Hell, former Florida Gov. Rick Scott angered the NRA in the aftermath of the Parkland massacre when he signed historic new firearm restrictions into law. But in the Capitol – the building that houses the nation’s federal lawmakers — now that he’s Senator Scott, he’s told me that was merely his stance on a state issue, not a national policy he supports.
Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker also got confused on the issue when I asked him about it three years ago.
“Not talking about that right now. No, I’m not here as a national figure. I’m here as a governor,” the failed presidential candidate said as he whisked through a fancy hotel a mere block from the White House.
The collective amnesia seems to be because Washington is the new Hollywood – in the minds of the nation’s political class who are selfie-ing themselves out of relevance.
Whether they’re dunking on social media or crooning for dollars on their cult-like Infotainment network of choice, today’s lawmakers have fallen into a trap they helped lay for themselves: They’re enshrined by rigid partisan parameters, but only because they’ve wrapped themselves in their team colors – colors that, in the end, aren’t red or blue; they’re green.
All that glitters is not gold, though. Because as lawmakers in both parties shattered fundraising record (2018) after fundraising record (2020) after fundraising record (2022!!!) of late, so too, the party’s rank and file have become robotic, even if they tweet a good game.
All politics is now national. At least when you spend your time staring into bright, ego-stroking lights and lenses of any shape and every size.
But today’s politicos seem to be forgetting their constitutional mandate: To represent their home state and their people. On gun-control, that’s something this bipartisan group of lawmakers is trying to convince their fellow lawmakers of: Even in this Fox NewsMax-era, politics is still a local sport.
Just look at Pennsylvania, where Republican Sen. Pat Toomey garnered about 32,000 more votes than Trump did in 2016 after he pushed a limited background check bill – limited, but still anathema to the NRA. In the end, the NRA leadership’s feelings didn’t matter.
“Donald Trump and Pat Toomey both won Pennsylvania in 2016 – Toomey by a larger margin. And it was interesting that Toomey did much better in the suburban counties than Trump did,” former Pennsylvania Republican Charlie Dent said. “And I think in no small part because of his leadership on the issue of universal background checks.”
Even Toomey forgot that lesson. For years now I’ve asked him if he’s going to revive his own bill. He never disavowed his measure.
Toomey’s also never pushed it again after his party filibustered the measure bearing his name in 2013.
The system in Washington – from sensational news outlets and today’s media-obsessed class of politicians (not lawmakers) to the throngs of lobbyists and consultants – makes it increasingly painful for freethinkers to exist here. Take Congresswoman Liz Cheney – who is currently the number three Republican in the House, though not for much longer, it seems. Why? She betrayed today’s GOP, so now even her fellow party leaders are pathetically fleeing her side rather than defending her.
The staunch conservative’s cardinal sin seems to be having eyes, ears and conviction.
“She refuses to say that the election was fraudulent, and she calls it out as a big lie and all this and that,” Michigan Democrat Haley Stevens said. “So Liz Cheney is willing to lead, right? She’s willing to look very honestly to her constituents and say ‘yes’ — even though, by the way, she votes with the former president, I think she voted with him 97% of the time, but that’s still not good enough, right?”
Again, Cheney would be offended if you called her moderate. Rather, she’s being principled. And principles have nothing to do with party.
But even as Cheney is being momentarily lauded as a profile in courage by some on the left, this latest GOP insurrection is doing exactly what it seems to be intended to do: Chill every independent impulse in party members. It not only seems to be having an impact now, but that intimidating groupthink has been a slow moving plague that’s now rotting the very heart of our democracy: There’s no room for uniqueness in today’s party structures.
“Cheney would be offended if you called her moderate. Rather, she’s being principled. And principles have nothing to do with party.”Matt Laslo
That’s why moderates, or even just open-minded folks, are now endangered species on Capitol Hill, as former New York Democratic Congressman Steve Israel recounted.
“They’re leaving, they’ve left. You know, there are fewer and fewer moderate Republicans on Capitol Hill right now, fewer who are willing to engage with Democrats on the issue. And so probably the best thing that can happen on this debate is to elect more moderate Republicans who are willing to take a position in support of protecting lives of their constituents,” Israel said.
It must be noted Israel ran the Democratic campaign arm from 2011 to 2015, thus he proudly wore the mantle of the slayer of moderate Republicans before he threw in the towel and left Congress. He’s now a CNN commentator.
With the middle a lonelier and scarier place than it’s been in the recent past here in Washington, some gun-rights proponents say it’s time to go back to Politics 101: If you don’t fit in a box, you build the box.
“So what we can do is be very targeted about the kind of support and the kind of coalitions we build to support those moderate Republicans,” Democratic Congressman Seth Moulton of Massachusetts said.
Moulton and an increasing number of Democrats are veterans, so they’ve been trying to build bonds with the military and other veterans. He says that’s something all Democrats can do, which might involve some progressives visiting gun ranges.
“I remember long before I came into Congress, but I was a Marine, seeing this article in the paper with a photograph about a Democratic member of Congress advocating for gun laws, she had a display of assault rifles and, you know, with my knowledge of guns, I quickly noticed that one of the assault rifles she had had the safety off,” Moulton recounted.
Things like that alienate the very gun owners advocates need on their side if they want to enact change in Washington.
“There has been a history of people talking about gun laws who don’t know much about guns. And that is something that we should,” Moulton said.
“What we did is we targeted white suburban women who are afraid that they’re going to send their children off to school one day, and their children are not going to return”Rep. Lucy McBath
That also means building stronger bonds with local and national law enforcement officials, but Moulton doesn’t want to stop there: He wants to take the conversation directly into the other party’s basecamp.
“Another coalition to look at is evangelical Christians, who obviously have huge resonance in the Republican Party. They believe in life. They talk about that all the time. And we should reach out to them to bring them in here,” Moulton said. “Because if we can target, not the 20% on the far right, but the 20% of Republicans who are in the middle — but protect them against the 20% in their district, the 20% of their base that might try to throw them out in a primary, with real targeted support. That’s how we can expand this coalition.”
This sort of outside of the box thinking isn’t as ludicrous as it sounds, at least to Congresswoman McBath.
“How could I ever have been elected in Newt Gingrich’s district in ruby red Georgia, running on a gun safety platform?” she said.
The answer is simple yet quaint. In part because it’s something the Infotainment networks don’t want us to remember: As Americans, we’re a lot more alike than we are different. And who supports more death or bloodshed?
“What we did is we targeted white suburban women who are afraid that they’re going to send their children off to school one day, and their children are not going to return,” McBath recounted of her victory. “And also, we targeted moderate Republicans and Independents that were…willing to listen to the commonsense conversations that we were having about gun safety.”