Snap Out of It!

by John Lawrence

In a memorable scene in the 1987 film “Moonstruck,” Nicholas Cage and Cher (who is engaged to Cage’s brother) have a quick tryst which prompts Cage’s character to profess his love.  Cher delivers two well-placed smacks upside his head and tells him, “Snap out of it!”

In the current debate about gun violence legislation, it is the American people who are slapping themselves on the forehead and demanding that the Congress “snap out of it.” 

Members of Congress have numerous reasons for voting against legislation beyond the obvious one: they don’t support it.  In some cases, support means voting against the wishes of constituents, or offending base supporters and contributors.  Sometimes, but not very often, a vote can unleash powerful interest groups that will launch an effort to defeat an incumbent.   

That is where integrity and courage enter the equation.  Part of your job as a public official is to cast a tough vote, even when it might have implications for your longevity on Capitol Hill.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know: who believes Members of Congress are willing to put their careers on the line even for something really important, if it means an enraged constituency with a big bankroll?

Critics might be surprised.  I remember very well such acts of courage during the 103rd Congress, when I served as staff director of the Committee on Natural Resources under Chairman George Miller.   Among the Democrats on the Committee were the “Two Karens” – Karan English of Arizona and Karen Shepherd of Utah: both freshmen, both environmentalists, both in very difficult seats and facing tough re-election campaigns.  At one point, as we marked up a number of important but controversial public lands bills (always a subject of controversy in many Western states), the “Karens” were delivering regular “aye” votes.  I went down to their seats on the dais and whispered to them, “You can vote against a couple of these; it’s OK, we have the votes.”  They responded, “That’s not what I came here to do.” 

In the same Congress. Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky of Pennsylvania, another first termer, was ridiculed by Republicans as she courageously provided the key vote to pass the 1993 Reconciliation bill that set the stage for the economic boom and deficit reduction of the 1990s.  

In 2010, freshmen Tom Pierriello, John Boccieri and a number of other vulnerable freshmen Members defied angry (and largely misinformed) constituents and voted for the health care law.  (When an infuriated constituent warned Perriello that a vote for the bill would prompt the questioner to work to defeat the Virginia lawmaker, Perriello replied, “That is absolutely part of the democratic process and I encourage that. If the worst thing that happens to me is that I get to be part of the House for two years and part of the greatest democracy ever invented—I can live with that.”

True to their words, these legislators not only cast tough votes, knowing their careers were endangered by their decisions, but they didn’t complain about paying the price.  That’s what they came to Congress to do.

Which brings me to the subject of the pending gun legislation and the reluctance to vote for it by some who know it is needed and who personally support it.  I have personally heard of a wavering senator who confessed, “I support it, my state supports it, but I can’t vote for it.”

Good grief.  Voting for expanded background checks (let along restrictions on large size magazines or assault weapons, neither of which is going to happen) doesn’t exactly qualify you for a Profile in Courage award.   Actually, former Rep. Gabby Giffords just won that distinction, and well-deserved it is for an Arizonan who might seek political office in the future.  Unlike raising taxes or even the health law, modest tightening of gun laws is wildly popular.

Any number of recent polls have confirmed the overwhelming support for tighter background checks (as high as 92% in some polls).  Twice as many people believe aliens walk among us disguised as humans as oppose such reforms.  According to the CBS/New York Times poll, nearly 9 out of 10 Republicans and 96% of Democrats want universal background checks that are more stringent than those in the Manchin-Toomey compromise.  You don’t need to be half as courageous as Karan English or Tom Perriello to stiffen your back and vote for that proposal.

Yes, the Members I cited as exhibiting “courage” lost their seats in the next election.  And no one wants to lose a long-coveted seat over a bill that might get little or no attention from Speaker Boehner and the House Republican majority.  That’s where the “courage” part comes in – having the guts to stand with 80% of your constituents against the NRA leaders who partly say stupid things to protect gun rights, but mostly say them to pump up memberships.    

America was traumatized by Newtown, and by Columbine, and by Aurora.  No one can make sense of 20 little children gunned down in their classrooms.  But time passes, and as it does, the urgency of political actions seems to fade, while the determination of the NRA only grows.

But here is something to consider.  Since Newtown  — since Newtown – nearly 4,000 Americans have died in gun violence.  That is not a typo: 4,000.  That’s the equivalent of 9 fully loaded 747’s crashing, about two each month since December 14, 2012.  There have been over a million Americans killed by guns since John Lennon was murdered in 1980, a number which dwarfs those killed in all American wars throughout our history.  How hard would it be for Congress to stand up to the aviation industry and impose tougher controls on aircraft maintenance under those circumstances?

 Now some news reports I have seen are focusing in on the few Senate Democrats who are hesitant to commit themselves or are flat out opposed, people like Max Baucus, Mary Landrieu and Mark Pryor.  Sure, the pressure must remain on these senators, who have pretensions of leadership, to demonstrate a little backbone.  But it is foolish, and inaccurate, to suggest, as have some, that this is a bipartisan problem.  It isn’t.  When 80+ percent of Senate Democrats support tougher restrictions, and more than an equivalent number of Senate Republicans oppose them, it doesn’t take a math wizard to correctly identify where the problem lies.   Democrats cannot be held equally culpable because they cannot produce 100% of the votes needed to pass legislation, while nearly all Republicans vote “no.”

As the Senate begins voting on gun legislation and the House Republicans continue to ignore the issue, we need to remember that not very long ago, courage was a recognizable quality among many in Congress.  For those who remain on the fence despite overwhelming public support and maybe even their own convictions, or because they fear a tough campaign commercial  a year and a half from now (or more), remember Cher’s admonition: “Snap out of it!”  Your country needs you.