The resoluteness politicians have promised in response to the Boston Marathon bombing is nothing less than what we should expect. President Obama vowed that “we will go to the ends of the earth” to find the bombers and take “appropriate security measures to protect the American people.”
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said that America “does not cower” in the face of horrendous attacks but rather confronts them head on. House Republican Conference chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers declared that “there is nothing we take more seriously than the protection of American life.”
If only all that were true. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Even as we mourned in Boston, Congress cowered in the face of more familiar violence, abdicating its responsibility to protect American life. Even as Obama’s Democrats and McConnell’s Republicans joined in a chorus to praise the courage of first responders and citizens who comforted victims, a bipartisan Senate gun-control compromise that barely qualified as a head-on solution was killed in the Senate.
It was a spineless display by the Senate, more shameful still because it came in the wake of the heart-rending loss of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn.; the death of 12 moviegoers and the wounding of 58 more in Aurora, Colo.; and an ongoing toll of carnage unknown in the rest of the developed world.
The compromise, sponsored by Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Senator Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania, would have extended background checks to all sales at gun shows and over the Internet.
It was hardly an assault on gun rights. The measure exempted private transactions between friends and family members. Ninety percent of Americans supported the idea. Some smaller gun-rights groups supported it. Families from Newtown and Aurora came to Washington to lobby for it, as did former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the most prominent victim of the Tucson massacre.
The National Rifle Association, however, rejected the common-sense compromise. Its leadership was unmoved even by appeals from Giffords, a gun owner, and Toomey and Manchin, who hold top NRA legislative ratings. And instead of standing up to the NRA, swing-state Democrats ran for cover, while Republicans actually floated plans to expand gun rights.
The worst of those came from Texas Senator John Cornyn. He wanted to force strict permitting states like Massachusetts to honor concealed-carry permits from any other state, no matter how lax their laws. That even though a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that Massachusetts had the nation’s strongest gun laws in 2010 — and the second-lowest rate of firearms fatalities. Cornyn’s Texas had much weaker laws — and three times the firearms death rate.
So for all the nation’s supposed resoluteness, the bipartisan proposal for background checks died. It was already clear, of course, that there was no chance for a ban on assault weapons or even on high-capacity magazines.
For all the supposed determination to protect American lives, more than 350,000 Americans have died from firearms homicides and suicides since Sept. 11, 2001. Imagine what our response would be if Al Qaeda or North Korea caused the deaths of 350,000 Americans.
The annual number of gun deaths in America will surpass yearly traffic fatalities by 2015, according to Bloomberg News. Before one can operate a vehicle, we require driver’s licenses, vehicle registration, annual inspections, and insurance. For safety, we also require seat belts and air bags. In the further interest of safety, many cars are sold with stability control, anti-lock brakes, and child-safety locks. And, to prevent theft, alarms.
The same safety-conscious mentality should apply to guns.
After the Senate vote, Obama and Manchin denounced the NRA for falsely claiming that background checks would create a “Big Brother” state.
“How can something have 90 percent support and yet not happen?” Obama asked.
Gabby Giffords had the answer. Writing in The New York Times, she laid it on the line: Cowardly senators intimidated by the NRA had put the gun lobby’s interest ahead of the country’s.
“I will not rest until I have righted the wrong these senators have done,” she wrote.
Neither should we.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at email@example.com.