It started the same as any normal day at the Capitol. Senate leaders spoke. Lawmakers conducted morning business. Members of the most powerful legislative body in the land planned to vote on a bill–the Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Spending Bill for 2017. And then, in a week of depressing surprises, a pleasant one.
At 11:21 AM Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) took the microphone and began a filibuster. He demanded the Senate act on gun control. Murphy’s state is home to the school massacre in Newton. Ever since, he’s been one of the most tireless, ardent leaders of the Democrats’ gun control fight. Today he would no longer mark another mass shooting with a moment of silence. He urged his colleagues from both parties to act to close loopholes in America’s gun laws. No one in the Democratic caucus was aware of his plans. The move even came as a surprise to the senator’s own aides. Murphy said:
“I’m going to remain on this floor until we get some signal, some sign that we can come together on these two measures, that we can get a path forward on addressing this epidemic in a meaningful, bipartisan way.”
And hold the floor he did. Murphy was only interrupted by allies as they each took turns to ask him questions and then yielded the floor back to him. He was joined by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass), Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). In the spirit of bipartisanship, Sen. Murphy also yielded the floor, momentarily, to GOP loyalists such as Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), only to continue his filibuster. All day. Drawing a whole nation’s attention.
Eight hours after he began, at around 7:24 PM, Murphy was asked by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) how he was doing. Murphy pointed out that in his early 20s he ruptured two discs in his back, and that thanks to the rigorous work he did in his later 20s to repair his back it’s all now paying off as he stood stoutly upright and held the floor with his filibuster. The otherwise lighthearted moment could only make you wonder whether Washington itself has the spine to pass meaningful gun control legislation.
So, what were the big takeaways today?
1. The “No-Fly List/No-Buy List" Is Back
Last year Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) proposed a terrorist watch list amendment based on the federal No-Fly List. She reasoned that if someone is suspected of being a terrorist and can’t fly, they shouldn’t be able to buy a gun. Republicans have opposed such legislation, even though the GOP under President George W. Bush pushed for the creation of the No-Fly List. Now, in response to mass shootings, Democrats are asking why someone who is banned from flying is still able to buy a “weapon of war.” As Sen. Edward Markey (D- MA) said during the filibuster:
“It’s very simple. If you cannot fly, you should not be able to buy a weapon…in America.”
2. There is Not Wide Bipartisan Support For a “No-Fly/No-Buy” List
This is where it gets tricky. Outside the Senate, there are moderates like former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg who seem to support such legislation, but in Congress there is not the same bipartisanship.
GOP Senators argue that a No Fly/No Buy list would tip off potential terrorists under investigation. The FBI agrees this is a very real risk. But you know what is probably way more likely to tip them off? Being on the No-Fly List.
To complicate matters, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb), the first GOP senator to take the floor from Murphy to ask a question, doubted the existence of a master “terrorist watchlist.”
“I’m familiar with the terrorist screening database. There are a series of lists that fall from the database, but I don’t think there’s any such thing as ‘the terrorist watchlist,’ and I certainly don’t understand what due process rights would apply.”
3. Republicans Want Due Process for Suspected Terrorists
To counter Feinstein’s proposals to empower the attorney general to create a No Fly/No Buy list, the GOP points out that Americans’ constitutional rights are at risk. The Republicans prefer Sen. John Cornyn’s (R-Texas) alternative plan of action. Cornyn is against a No Fly/No Buy list but is OK with granting powers to the attorney general to create a 72-hour delay for suspected terrorists to purchase a gun, to give time to seek a court order to prohibit the sale of said gun.
Due process is not something to be swept aside lightly. Any proposed law must withstand appeals to its constitutionality.
4. It’s Hard Out There for a Purple Senator
Consider the stance of Toomey (R-PA) who seeks reelection in a swing state. He spent the day attempting to strike a deal with bipartisanship support.
"There’s an obvious opportunity here, guys, to work together and find the solution. What I’m suggesting is let’s get to work here.”
His answer to working together means rejecting Feinstein’s proposal as “deeply flawed” while also rejecting Cornyn’s proposal since it didn’t hand enough power to the attorney general. He flipped and flopped all day in backdoor meetings, according to reports, and ultimately failed to find bipartisan support. It’s difficult for a senator facing a tough reelection in a gun-loving state to side with an extremely liberal senator from California.
5. Some Democrats Want to Protect Gun Owners’ Rights, Too
Certain Democrats also must ensure that they keep their gun-loving constituents happy, especially senators from Southwestern states such as Colorado and New Mexico. As Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) pointed out, “Terrorists pass background checks 91 percent of the time. Terrorists know this.”
Although Heinrich wants to protect the American people, he also wants to protect gun buyers’ rights, and rather than focus on universal background checks, which the vast majority of Americans support, the senator from New Mexico said he’d prefer to close loopholes like the “gun show and internet loopholes.” He’s in favor of giving the attorney general the ability to put terrorists on a No-Fly/No-Buy List. Which means he holds a position similar to but not exactly the same as Toomey.
One thing about Washington: it gets real tricky for anyone who tries to ride more than one horse with just their one ass.
6. The Terror Watch Lists Won’t Catch All the Terrorists
As many lawmakers, such as Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) have pointed out, and as was reported by the New York Times, the Orlando shooter was investigated…and dismissed from an FBI investigation.
Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to Obama administration officials demanding information about Mr. Mateen, his family and the dates he was on a terrorism watch list.
James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director, has said Mr. Mateen was on a watch list during his investigation. Once it was closed, he was removed from the list, as is required. “We don’t keep people under investigation indefinitely,” he said.
Even if Mr. Mateen had remained on the watch list, it would not have stopped him from buying a gun. Congress blocked an attempt last year to give the F.B.I. the power to block gun sales to people on terrorism watch lists.
So, that’s problematic. Someone can be suspected of being a terrorist, but they also might come off the list for lack of proof and later commit an act of terror.
7. The NRA Is Singing the Same Old Tune
Murphy made his stand a day after Chris W. Cox, the executive director for the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, wrote in USA Today:
Radical Islamic terrorists are not deterred by gun control laws. The San Bernardino terrorist attack wasn’t stopped by California’s so-called “assault weapons” ban. The gun ban in Brussels didn’t prevent the terrorist attack there. And France’s strict gun control didn’t stop the two attacks in Paris, committed with fully-automatic rifles and grenades.
On the point of an assault weapons ban, he added:
Congress banned their manufacture for 10 years, from 1994 to 2004. The law also mandated an independent study on its effectiveness. The study proved the ban had no impact because criminals and terrorists are not deterred by gun control laws. To suggest otherwise provides a dangerous sense of false security. We don’t need false promises. We need real leadership.
Good luck getting real leadership from the NRA and its cronies.
8. This Attack Was Like No Other
As a member of the LGBTQ community, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) articulated the intersections of this crime.
“We are better than this as a country. […] In the political world, so regrettably, we fall into our–I don’t know what to call it–our comfort zones. Let’s only talk of this as a terrorist incident. Or, let’s only talk of this as a hate crime. Or, let’s only talk of this in terms of gun violence. This is all of the above.”
To Baldwin, the multiple ways to interpret the Orlando shooting and remembering the many Latino LGBTQ victims is key to understanding the threat that all Americans face from gun violence. Baldwin used her time to speak about each and every one of the 49 murdered victims of the Orlando shooting. She asked whether a misdemeanor hate crime should also be grounds to prohibit someone from purchasing “weapons of war.”
9. Don’t Hold Your Breath
Will we get meaningful gun control legislation? Most likely, no. Not today. Not tomorrow. And it’s unlikely anytime soon. The issue is a thicket of jurisprudence, and Congress doesn’t seem to know how to come together to act. For now, let’s hope more lawmakers soon find the necessary backbone to make this a continued front-and-center issue, following the example of Murphy’s bold filibuster, which ended after midnight.