Senate stumbles on gun control bills

The terrorism debate continues to focus on whether to make gun laws more strict. (Paul Zoeller/postandcourier.com)

BY GAIL COLLINS

Would it be absolutely cynical to say the Senate responded to what appears to be a terrorist mass shooting by declining to ban the sale of guns to people on the terrorist watch list?

Nah. Let’s go for it.

This week the Senate voted on two proposals to toughen the nation’s gun regulations in the wake of the San Bernardino murders. The other one would have tightened loopholes in the background-check law that are currently the size of the Pacific Ocean. Both failed on basically party-line votes.

“It was a huge victory that there was a vote at all,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, in a telephone conference call.

We normally celebrate winners in this country, but let’s remember the people who keep trudging toward a noble goal at the top of the political mountain, oblivious to perpetual landslides. History will someday reward them. Meanwhile, if you run into a member of the gun control lobby, give him or her hug.

How, you may ask, could anybody be against depriving terrorism suspects of the right to bear arms? Well, the FBI watch list has, in the past, included some names through bureaucratic error. The question is which remote possibility you regard as worse: letting a terrorist buy a gun or temporarily depriving a person who is not a terrorist of the right to acquire weaponry. Most people in the Senate, it turns out, are way more worried about making a non-terrorist wait to get his armaments. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas called it “un-American.”

It’s always the same story. The San Bernardino murderers were wielding assault rifles, with which they were able to fire an estimated 65-75 bullets in rapid succession. Assault weapons, which seem to be the armament of choice for mass shootings, used to be illegal under a law that expired in 2004. If the law had stayed on the books, how many victims would have survived in San Bernardino, or at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut? Given the fact that semi-automatic weapons are totally inappropriate for either hunting or home defense, some of us would love to trade them for the possibility of reduced casualties next time somebody decides to go on a rampage.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is an excellent example of the politicians who totally disagree. Last time an assault weapons ban came up, he argued that Americans should not be forced to rely on regular slowpoke rifles “in an environment where the law and order has broken down, whether it’s a hurricane, national disaster, earthquake, terrorist attack, cyberattack where the power goes down and the dam’s broken and chemicals have been released into the air and law enforcement is really not able to respond and people take advantage of that lawless environment.”

Graham is currently a candidate for president and he is actually not any crazier on this subject than most of the other Republican contenders. Although possibly a little more gloomy.

The National Rifle Association got to the power perch it holds today by being passionately irrational and intransigent, and politicians follow their lead. Gun control supporters know their voters generally want reasonable controls, not a universal ban on bullets, so they try to show how evenhanded they are on the matter. (“I am not a hunter. But I have gone hunting,” said Hillary Clinton in 2008, reminiscing about the days when her dad taught her how to shoot at Lake Winola outside of Scranton, Pa.) But the opponents try for insane intensity. When the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a very modest bill that raised penalties on “straw purchasers” — people who buy guns in order to give them to someone barred from making the purchase — Cornyn expressed concern that it could “make it a serious felony for an American Legion employee to negligently transfer a rifle or firearm to a veteran who, unknown to the transferrer, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.”

People, how many of you are worried about the negligent transferrer? But the argument obviously worked, since the bill — which was aimed at purchasers who get guns for convicted felons — never even came up for a vote.

In response to the San Bernardino shootings, the Brady Campaign released a video reminder that an al-Qaida spokesman, the American-born Adam Yahiye Gadahn, had once urged supporters in the West to take advantage of the fact that “America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms.” Gross vowed that the Brady folk would be “calling out the senators who basically agree with Jihad Joe.”

That presumes that the senators are more afraid of being lumped with al-Qaida than they are afraid of ticking off the NRA. Right now, there doesn’t seem to be a contest.

Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.