Advocates of strengthening the nation’s gun control laws were busy declaring victory on Thursday, after a nearly 15-hour filibuster that shut down the Senate was ended with the news that Democrats would be allowed to offer two amendments for an upcoming appropriations bill.
The celebratory mood that followed the announcement by Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy was indicative of just how used to losing the advocates of gun control in Congress have become. What Murphy and the dozens of Democrats who supported him by taking the floor to speak achieved is a fleeting win at best.
They will apparently be given votes on two proposals. One, by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, would restrict people on the federal government’s terrorism watch list from purchasing handguns. The second would expand the requirement that gun buyers pass a criminal background check, bringing more transactions -- including those at gun shows -- under the requirement.
While Murphy and his allies celebrated, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell insinuated that the entire exercise was a waste of time, because he had been planning to allow Democrats to offer amendments anyway. Whether that’s true or not, the fact that the Democrats will be allowed to offer the amendments is -- in the grand scheme of efforts to make controls on gun sales more effective at preventing violence -- really pretty trivial.
First of all, just because McConnell is allowing the amendments to be offered doesn’t actually guarantee that they will get a vote. The modern incarnation of the Senate effectively requires 60 votes for motions to go forward, including those authorizing a vote. These proposals, both very controversial among gun rights advocates, may never see a vote at all.
Second, even if there is a vote, there’s a strong possibility that the Senate’s Republican majority will simply vote the measures down. Indeed, Feinstein’s amendment was offered in December of last year and was voted down.
Third, even if the measures somehow make it through the Senate, they would almost certainly die in the House of Representatives, which has an even stronger Republican majority than the Senate. Failing that, a conference committee dominated by Republicans could excise the gun control language when representatives of both Houses meet to reconcile their separate bills.
Finally, even in the remotely possible instance that the proposals become law, they would be subject to legal challenges backed by gun rights groups including the National Rifle Association.
If the filibuster made any real progress toward meaningful reform of the laws governing access to firearms, it was probably incremental at best. The effort raised awareness of the Democrats’ proposals, largely by generating interest on social media. It will also force Republicans into an uncomfortable vote, whether on a procedural effort to block a vote or on the proposals themselves.
In the end, that can be described as progress toward gun control advocates ultimate goal, but it’s progress measured in baby steps, not great strides.