Opinion

Michael A. Cohen

Senate votes on guns turns power back to voters

Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) speaks at a news conference with a bipartisan group of senators on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., to unveil a compromise proposal on gun control measures, June 21, 2016. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Yuri Gripas/REUTERS
Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) spoke at a news conference to unveil a proposal on gun control measures on Tuesday.

Eight days after 49 people were massacred in an Orlando nightclub by an American citizen wielding a legally purchased AR-15 assault rifle, the US Senate voted to do absolutely nothing to prevent a similar atrocity from occurring somewhere else in America.

In four separate votes Tuesday, Republican senators and a smattering of Democrats voted down measures to strengthen background checks and prevent Americans on the terror watch list from buying guns or explosives. Democrats voted against a pair of toothless Republican amendments to increase money for running background checks without expanding them and another that would give federal law enforcement officials three days to get a court order to block a gun sale (a near impossible standard).

One would imagine that after the worst mass shooting in American history — by an individual who pledged allegiance to a terrorist organization with whom the United States is currently fighting a war — that Congress would be falling over itself to do everything possible to prevent such an incident from happening again. Considering the national freak-out that followed the tragedy of 9/11, one might think that Republicans — who led the post-9/11 charge — would at least agree that keeping guns out of the hands of terrorist is a reason to finally pass a gun control measure. And yet. . . .

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Of course, no one expected this legislation to pass. In fact, these amendments were written with next fall’s congressional elections in mind. The goal here, particularly from Democrats, was to make it clear to the public the key differences between the two parties on guns. One party seeks to tighten gun laws; the other thinks that the current laws are just fine.

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This firmly puts the ball in the voters’ court.

The simple fact is that there will be no progress on gun control, and no progress on keeping deadly weapons out of the hands of potential killers, until the politics around guns change. Nothing will be different until Republican politicians — and a few red-state Democrats — lose an election because they are on the wrong side of the public on background checks, an assault weapons ban, and other gun control measures.

There are those who argue that NRA contributions are what motivates legislators and politicians who do the bidding of the NRA and pro-gun Americans. But the most basic reality is that gun control has gone nowhere in Congress for years because politicians are fearful of the wrath of pro-gun voters. Until a few years ago, this was true of both parties, but after the massacre of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary School, things began to change. The politics of gun control shifted — so much so that now Democrats see a political opportunity on the issue.

As for Republicans, they are little interested in larger public opinion and far more focused on the narrow preferences of Republican voters. They are more concerned with an NRA endorsement and doing nothing to upset pro-gun voters. For decades, gun rights advocates have been akin to single-issue voters, making guns their redline issue in how they cast a ballot, from president down to state legislators. Pro-gun control advocates need to do the same.

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This isn’t a matter of rewarding electoral year conversions, like the one seen this week from New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, who voted with Democrats on keeping guns away from suspected terrorists, but who three years ago voted against a Senate bill to expand background checks for gun buyers. Make no mistake: If a purple or blue state senator were to lose because of his or her position on guns, it would be akin to a political earthquake.

Americans who believe that this country’s gun laws are an anachronism that aids and abets the gun violence that has become a daily and deadly feature of American life are the only ones who can change things. Voters, not politicians, must lead the way. With the votes Monday in the Senate, they have their marching orders.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.