Sitting in tortuously long House Appropriations Committee mark-ups may have been the tipping point for me.
I had listened to debates on amendments to legislation to reduce gun violence, but knew before votes were taken that the efforts were futile. I had heard “law and order” conservatives defend the rights of suspected terrorists to possess guns. I’d watched them dispatch these irksome amendments in lockstep with the gun lobby.
I had been considering not seeking a ninth term in the House in 2015. Not because of my frustration with inaction on gun violence, but because I had soured on the fundraising regimen for campaigns and found greater reward in writing books than laws. My first novel was a fulfilling experience, and I’d started another, a satire about the gun lobby.
Fact met fiction in those committee meetings, when annual funding is set for every department, division, agency, entity, office, bureau, center and commission. When bills are “marked up,” legislative language is changed, and money is added, reduced, slashed and shifted.
And so, the mark-up on federal agencies with jurisdiction on guns becomes an annual ideological battleground.
Democrats routinely propose amendments: for example, stipulating that people on the no-fly list can’t get a gun, and closing the loophole that permits sales without background checks at gun shows. Then, the GOP majority defeats the amendments, knowing Republican members of Congress can’t return to their ruby-red districts having paved the way for anything seeming like a betrayal of the Second Amendment — or at least the National Rifle Association’s loose interpretation of it. After all, as their members’ bumper stickers proclaim, “I’m NRA and I Vote!”
But don’t most NRA members support proposals to strengthen background checks and prevent people on the no-fly list from getting guns, and other sensible measures to reduce gun violence? Don’t more than 80 percent of Americans support such measures?
Yes — but nothing happens.
My former colleagues call it “voter intensity.” The vast majority of people who support gun-safety measures cast votes on many issues, including gun violence, the economy, taxes, education, women’s rights, the environment, etc. Or they don’t bother voting. A good chunk of the vocal minority that opposes gun-safety measures cast votes on that single issue, with the NRA as their source of information about who is “pro-Second Amendment.” For some, that bumper sticker really means: “I’m NRA, I Vote In Every Election, And Guns Are The Only Thing I Vote On.”
I heard it from one of my former colleagues, an Arkansas Democrat. He said that when he visited his district in the depths of the recession, the one thing he heard most from constituents was, “Don’t let them take my guns away.”
Our instinct is to blame Congress for this political calculation. I’ve pointed my share of fingers, saying that the most lethal combination in America is an active shooter and an inactive Congress. But it won’t change until the political calculation does. And that won’t change until voters do. Parkland may be a catalyst, people say. I hope so, but we need more than hope.
When more members of Congress believe that voter intensity for gun safety is rising and automatic opposition is softening, things will get done. Maybe not everything. But something. Banning bump stock devices that make semiautomatic weapons fire faster, perhaps. Meaningful background checks. Banning cop-killing bullets. Who knows, maybe even the radical notion that since we take off our shoes at airports, we shouldn’t let possible terrorists take home guns.
At that point, our lawmakers will stop saying that laws are useless.
Steve Israel is a former Democratic congressman. His novel “Big Guns” will be released in April.