Debate on gun legislation began this week in the U.S. Senate. Gun manufacturers, the National Rifle Association, a narrow band of gun-rights ideologues and, to a lesser degree, the 16 percent of Americans who live in rural areas were well represented. Most of the American public was not.
Multiple opinion polls have shown that more than 80 percent of Americans support expanded background checks to make it more difficult for criminals and the mentally ill to obtain guns. Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania struck a bipartisan deal to accomplish that goal. Their proposal contains loopholes -- what American gun legislation doesn’t? -- but it is an honest attempt to address a genuine threat to public safety.
The struggle to enact their plan turned uphill this week, with nearly all Senate Republicans opposing it and even a few red-state Democrats running for cover. The proposal’s demise, in a 54-46 vote, is a testament to legislators’ continuing fear of the gun lobby. It also illuminates a political equation that grows more unbalanced, especially in the Senate, every year. The votes of Wyoming’s two senators, representing 580,000 citizens, effectively cancel the votes of California’s two senators, representing 38 million. The votes of Illinois, with a population of almost 13 million, are voided by those of Alaska, with little more than 700,000.
This is a problem for sensible gun legislation. It is also a problem for American democracy. If the nation’s laws fail to represent the views of the overwhelming majority of its people, representative democracy becomes a shallow and unsustainable exercise.
Just as gun laws have failed to keep pace with the advance of technology -- which puts ever greater firepower in the hands of virtually anyone who wants it -- the Senate has failed to adapt to the urbanization and suburbanization of the nation, enabling rural representatives to veto the will of an increasingly metropolitan majority. The Senate cannot, and indeed does not, function if 60 votes are the threshold for every proposal.
That, however, is increasingly the standard for passing legislation due to the minority’s persistent resort to filibuster. It’s why the usual remedy for Senate sclerosis -- filibuster reform -- appears increasingly necessary.
Yet that remedy also promises to be wholly inadequate. Even a supermajority in the Senate probably wouldn’t be enough to propel popular gun regulation through the current House of Representatives, which mimics the Senate’s anti-cosmopolitanism thanks to the way urban voters are packed together in heavily Democratic districts while Republican and conservative voters are spread more broadly, maximizing their numbers. (In 2012, although House Democrats collectively won about 1.4 million more votes than House Republicans, Republicans retained their majority.)
Rural America is as integral to the national character as the nation’s cities are. But no more so. Manchin and Toomey, both from gun-friendly states, deserve praise for striking a compromise between urban and rural values that would protect the public from criminals and madmen while honoring the traditions and rights of gun owners. The Senate’s rejection of that compromise bodes well for no one.
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