June 26, 2022
I woke Wednesday morning to the glorious news that our “Senators hail ‘bipartisan breakthrough’ on gun safety legislation” It will be, we are told it is important because it will be the first gun control legislation to become law in 30 years. In the words of Senator Chris Murphy(Conn.), the lead Democratic negotiator bringing us this bipartisan agreement that is a breakthrough of immense proportions. “I believe that this week we will pass legislation that will become the most significant piece of anti-gun-violence legislation Congress will have passed in 30 years. This is a breakthrough, and, more importantly, it is a bipartisan breakthrough.“
We are being asked to see this legislation as a major step in combatting gun violence and mass shootings. We are being asked to see this evidence that bipartisanship is alive and it is the best way to achieve social progress. We are being asked to applaud the effort of the brave senators who forged this deal and to recognize, particularly, the bravery of the Republican senators who have signed on as supporters.
From my perspective, this “accomplishment” is more a sign of defeat. It is a sign of us slipping backward as a nation rather than stepping forward.
Beginning in 1934, during the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, slow steps were made to establish national rules controlling the kinds of weapons we would be allowed to own and limiting who would be allowed to purchase a gun. Sawed-off shotguns and machine guns were among the earliest entries on a banned weapons list. A national system of background checks for some gun purchasers was established; those with prior felonies were among those on the list of people who could not purchase a weapon.
The highwater mark for establishing a single, national framework for controlling weaponry in our society was reached in 1994 when the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act was enacted as part of a broader package of crime control legislation. As described by Time, this legislation temporarily (only for 10 years!) “outlawed the ability to ‘manufacture, transfer, or possess a semiautomatic assault weapon,’ unless it was ‘lawfully possessed under Federal law on the date of the enactment of this subsection.’ Nineteen military-style or “copy-cat” assault weapons—including AR-15s, TEC-9s, MAC-10s, etc.—could not be manufactured or sold. It also banned ‘certain high-capacity ammunition magazines of more than ten rounds…’”
After 1994 progress, as slow as it had been, stopped; in fact, we went backward and we have witnessed the growth of a more heavily armed society with an even stronger culture of unfettered gun rights. In 2004 the ban on assault weapons was allowed to lapse. Research on gun violence was stymied by Congressional action. Gun manufacturers and dealers were shielded from any liability. And the Federal Court system was groomed, packed with judges who saw the US Constitution’s 2nd Amendment that established a “well-regulated militia” as permitting almost unfettered gun ownership and prohibiting cities, states, and the federal government from doing very much at all to place even modest limits on gun ownership.
As I write these word the Supreme Court has just handed down its decision in NEW YORK STATE RIFLE & PISTOL ASSOCIATION, INC., ET AL. v. BRUEN, SUPERINTENDENT OF NEW YORK STATE POLICE, ET AL. The Court struck down a 100-year-old New York State Law that limited the ability of its citizens to carry a concealed weapon because “the constitutional right to bear arms in public for self-defense is not a second-class right, subject to an entirely different body of rules than the other Bill of Rights guarantees.’ We know of no other constitutional right that an individual may exercise only after demonstrating to government officers some special need. That is not how the First Amendment works when it comes to unpopular speech or the free exercise of religion. It is not how the Sixth Amendment works when it comes to a defendant’s right to confront the witnesses against him. And it is not how the Second Amendment works when it comes to public carry for self-defense…New York’s proper-cause requirement violates the Fourteenth Amendment in that it prevents law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defense needs from exercising their right to keep and bear arms.”
We have allowed gun ownership to become a religious tenant. Fueled by cynical politicians and by a gun industry that has its bottom line to protect, guns now flood our nation unlike any other country on this planet.
Here is how the New York Times described the state of our progress to control weaponry, “Gun companies have spent the past two decades scrutinizing their market and refocusing their message away from hunting toward selling handguns for personal safety, as well as military-style weapons attractive to mostly young men. The sales pitch — rooted in self-defense, machismo and an overarching sense of fear — has been remarkably successful. Firearm sales have skyrocketed, with background checks rising from 8.5 million in 2000 to 38.9 million last year. The number of guns is outpacing the population. Women, spurred by appeals that play on fears of crime and being caught unprepared, are the fastest-growing segment of buyers.”
But, in the face of this reality, we are being asked to hold our noses and celebrate the passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, a bill that does little to either limit the number and type of guns in our communities or seriously ensure that we are controlling who can own those weapons. This might be seen as evidence of how the arc of justice was slowly bending upward. And, if we are to believe “progressive” leaders like Senator Murphy, then the new law that made it past the finish line before Congress went home to celebrate (and politic) for the Fourth of July is further evidence of that inevitable path toward a better world that we are making.
If we are honest with ourselves, the aura of momentous success that is being promulgated by those who have worked to create this compromise is not a testament to progress, it is a sign of deep failure.
It is progress only for the more regressive elements in our society because it demonstrates how powerful they remain and how well they have shaped the playing field. It is an indicator of the profound failure of those, like me, who have been working for progressive values, values we believe lead us toward that better world we hunger for.
And these signs of failure are to be found not just in the fight to limit guns. Earlier this week another bipartisan, compromise was reached in the Senate. Unless action is taken by June 30, millions of children will again be going hungry because a temporary expansion in Federal funding for school-based meals will end.
The bipartisan compromise that appears to be ready to pass will leave millions of children at risk. But it too will be described as a victory rather than as a defeat. Truth Out spotlighted the cost of this “success in a recent post. , “Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) and John Boozman (R-Arkansas) and Representatives Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) and Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina) have unveiled the Keep Kids Fed Act, which would extend a supplemented school meal waiver program through the upcoming school year…” but would reduce funding from $11 billion to only $3 billion! “Schools and local groups say that a reduction in funding for their meal programs will be devastating to their ability to ensure that children are fed. This impact could be felt widely across the country, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that 90 percent of school nutrition programs are currently receiving funds from the universal meals program. Placing income limits on the program could block millions of children from being able to access meals. About 30 million children are currently receiving meals under the program, while only 20 million children were on federal meal assistance before the pandemic. “
For those who say they support progressive values, these two “victories” should be seen as the canaries in the mine shaft. We have no time for a celebration. All of the energy we expend seeking compromise and bipartisanship is futile. While we have trusted in the inevitable arc of Justice pointing upward, those who see a different future have been sticking to their guns (pun intended). They have not been looking for small, and often meaningless, steps forward. When blocked at the Federal level, they have focused on controlling state governments. When the legislative branch failed them, they focused on shaping our court systems. When elections have failed them, they have focused on reshaping how we vote and controlling who can vote.
It is time for progressive voices to work for what we actually want. It is time to tell those who represent us that we need them to be partisans, win or lose, not compromisers. It is time for us to learn from our opponents and understand what it takes to win. They have focused on a set of clear, overarching goals. They have been willing to work at every level and focus on every bran of government to put their partisans into place. They have been ready to fight battle by battle, year by year with those goals in mind. When they cannot win, they have not been looking for compromises. They have used their losses as rallying points to make their case and build their base. They understood that the cost of long-term victory may be paid in the pain of short-term defeat.
This is the lesson we need to learn. Fight for what we really want, not just for the crumbs that compromise will allow. If we want to control guns, then stop compromising on bills that will not do that. If we wish to ensure that all children are not going hungry, don’t compromise on bills that will leave millions at risk. And if we fail in the moment, use the pain to build our base, until our base until we win.