Yesterday the Senate defeated a measure that would require our nation to run background checks on people who purchase guns at gun shows and on the Internet.
The Senate did this despite the fact that 80-90% of Americans support the measure, which would have eliminated a loophole in the current law. Right now, anyone who purchases a gun at a store already has to go through this exact same background check, so the measure that the Senate abandoned would merely have made the law universal and eliminated the possibility that someone with a mental illness or history of felonious behavior would be able to buy a gun online or at a convention.
There are two major problems going on here. First, of course, is that our nation's love affair with guns seems to have no end. Where is our common sense? In our rush to defend the Second Amendment, we easily forget that the framers of our Constitution had no earthly idea about weapons that could be purchased by individual citizens for mass destruction of human life. No one who wrote our Constitution could have foreseen ordinary Americans being able to purchase military-grade semiautomatic weapons. (As well, the actual wording of the Second Amendment is about protecting the rights of society to bear arms to form militias, as you can see here.)
Most gun control advocates in this country don't have an issue with individuals owning rifles, handguns, pistols, or other small-scale weapons for self-defense or hunting. That's not the question here. This is about weapons that have been used in mass tragedies such as the Newtown school shooting, weapons that do not fit that small-scale profile.
How many tragedies will it take before our country realizes there must be reasonable limits to our Second Amendment rights, just as there are reasonable limits to our First Amendment rights? I have free speech, but not if my words present a "clear and present danger" to society; I have freedom of religion, but not if its exercise requires using peyote or being married to more than one person; I have freedom of the press, but not if I hijack this blog to call for violent acts.
There are always reasonable limits to our freedoms in order to protect the safety of others -- and keeping assault weapons out of the hands of criminals and those who have been diagnosed with mental illness is one such reasonable limit.
The second issue is a larger question about the state of our democracy. Yesterday on Facebook, one of my acquaintances noted that he had been using guns since the age of 12. He has been a member of the NRA for much of his life, though he chastised the organization today for bearing about as much resemblance to the NRA of his adolescence as the Republican Party today bears to the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln. I cannot speak to the truth of this comparison, since I have never been a member of the NRA. But his larger point was this: if our United States Senate can ignore the will of 80-90% of Americans and bow to the monied interests of powerful political lobbies such as the NRA, then our very democracy is a sham.
In a passionate New York Times editorial last night, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords agreed.
On Wednesday, a minority of senators gave into fear and blocked common-sense legislation that would have made it harder for criminals and people with dangerous mental illnesses to get hold of deadly firearms — a bill that could prevent future tragedies like those in Newtown, Conn., Aurora, Colo., Blacksburg, Va., and too many communities to count.
. . . They looked at these most benign and practical of solutions, offered by moderates from each party, and then they looked over their shoulder at the powerful, shadowy gun lobby — and brought shame on themselves and our government itself by choosing to do nothing.
Like many people in our country, today I will come to terms with what to do next, aside from letting Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio know how disappointed I am in him (despite my admiration for his contributions to Cincinnati, his research on Shaker history in Ohio, and his recent public support of gay marriage).
As President Obama said last night, in a speech as angry as any I've ever seen from him, yesterday was a pretty shameful day for Washington. How strange that I live in a country where a convicted felon can never cast another vote in a public election, but can easily purchase a gun on the Internet -- a gun that could murder hundreds of people in a public place.
Our Senate has made sure that in this way at least, a criminal's "rights" are well protected.