Small Victories

Why Democrats are ready to declare a gun bill—any gun bill—a big win.

Family members of Newtown shooting victims step off Air Force One with US President Barack Obama (right) upon arrival April 8, 2013 at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. The family members traveled to Washington, DC with Obama to lobby for gun control.

Family members of Newtown shooting victims, on their way to Washtington D.C. to lobby for gun control, step off Air Force One with President Barack Obama

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Lori Haas nearly got kicked out of the Senate viewing gallery. The upper house was voting on whether or not to allow a debate on gun legislation. Haas’ freshman senator, Tim Kaine, spotted her from the floor. He waved up. She waved back. That nearly violated the churchlike protocols of the Senate. But Haas negotiated with Capitol security to keep her seat and count out the votes, on her fingers, occasionally pumping her fist when a surprise Republican “aye” came through, stopping only when the vote came in—68-31 for cloture.

“I was counting all the yes votes,’ ” she said, after she and fellow gun-bill advocates left the gallery. “I knew they’d gotten to 60, but I was afraid I’d counted wrong. I didn’t want to get that wrong. This is very emotional for me. I’ve been working on this for six years.”

Six years ago, a Virginia Tech student who should have failed a background check turned two semi-automatic pistols on a classroom, killing 32 and injuring 17. Haas’ daughter, Emily, was one of the 17; she took two bullets to the head and wondered whether she’d bleed out. Her mother became a full-time gun control campaigner. Like the other activists in the Senate Thursday—some of them Newtown family members who wept as senators spoke—she was calling the cloture vote a win.

For gun-bill advocates, from the White House on down, any bill is a win. They haven’t actually seen the bill they’re celebrating now; Sen. Joe Manchin and Sen. Pat Toomey have only released a fact sheet before they introduce their compromise amendment. They know that this bill will chuck multiple brass-ring priorities recommended this year by the White House’s task force. No assault weapons ban, no ban on extended magazines. Just a background checks plan that was, until yesterday, being worked on in consultation with the NRA itself.

That doesn’t matter to the advocates. At a press conference before the cloture vote, flanked by family members of those wounded or murdered in gun massacres—again, with some of them weeping openly—Sen. Chuck Schumer imagined a world in which the NRA was reeling. “With the vote that we take today,” he said, “we are turning the page against the NRA’s dominance.” He was so dedicated to the long game that he’d even skipped another press conference, after Toomey fretted about the optics of appearing with the NRA’s New York bête noir.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was saying the exact same thing, only louder and with more snark. “The NRA’s real thing was to stop anything,” he said. “And once we have some sensible gun laws, and once elected officials understand they don’t have to kowtow to the N.R.A., that the public has a voice here, and the public wants to be heard, and the public is going to vote in the next election whenever anybody is running, based on whether people were rational on this and tried to save their lives, that’s what matters here.”

If it all sounds theoretical, that’s because it is. Democrats haven’t moved a gun bill in two decades, preferring (or being forced into) an accommodation with the NRA and the rest of the gun lobby. But what’s happened to the NRA? They think it’s been brought lower—it’s got a modest plus-7 favorable rating in the last relevant poll—by its bridge-burning approach to the gun debate.

So Democrats are adopting Saul Alinsky’s 13th rule, to “freeze” and “personalize” and “polarize” a target, although the NRA has done some of the freezing all by itself. Before today’s vote, a Democratic aide told me that the party had run the numbers on the Senate races targeted by the NRA in 2012. In 13 out of 16 races, the NRA lost. It accused Barack Obama of harboring a “secret plan to destroy the Second Amendment,” and then lost to him. Twice. In Virginia, even.

To really whip the gun lobby, Democrats need the other team to abandon all sense of strategy and tact. They know that happened this week, as a ballyhooed filibuster of the motion to proceed fell to pieces. There was no filibuster; Sen. Ted Cruz, one of the Republicans who’d called for it, stood awkwardly on the Senate floor as Reid warned against any senator trying to “spoil” things by filibustering amendments.

But there are so many ways to sink a gun bill. Sen. Schumer fretted that concealed carry reciprocity—the right for someone with a permit in one state to carry in another—could make it into the gun bill as a “pernicious” amendment. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who voted for cloture, is ready with an amendment that would loosen the rules keeping guns away from people adjudicated “mentally ill.” Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, one of two Democrats who opposed cloture, has signed onto the Graham bill. As they left the cloture vote, the Republicans who’d gone “aye” refused to commit to the next votes.

“Harry Reid has told us that we will have the opportunity to offer amendments to this bill,” said Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who’s frequently backed an assault weapons ban. “Voting to proceed to that attracted the support of Democrats and Republicans, but it is not in any way a predictor of the vote on final passage or the vote on any of the amendments.”

The NRA has helpfully described the amendments it wants. In a letter sent to senators last night, Chris Cox (whose proper mouthful title is “NRA Institute for Legislative Action Executive Director) asked for amendments that would “fix our broken mental health system [i.e. Begich-Graham], increase prosecutions of violent criminals; and make our schools safer [i.e. armed guards, like Wayne LaPierre keeps saying].” If anything else made it in, “the NRA will make an exception to our standard policy of not ‘scoring’ procedural votes and strongly oppose a cloture motion to move to final passage.”

That threat blindsided some senators. Sens. Manchin and Toomey had been under the impression that their compromise, with all of its exemptions for person-to-person gun sales, could satisfy the NRA. On Thursday, some Republicans were still unaware of the NRA’s key-vote message. They have ultra-specific concerns about the gun bill. Democrats have only one: Whatever it is, pass it.