Gun Safety is the Best Issue to Bust the Filibuster

If we are going to call the question on the filibuster, let's do it on a wildly popular issue that will save lives

For the first 100 days or so of the Biden Administration, everyone in Washington has been talking about but working around the filibuster. The Senate has been focused on confirming Biden’s nominees and passing legislation using budget reconciliation. These two things are absolutely necessary but also conveniently can’t be filibustered, thereby delaying a fight that could forever change the direction of the Senate and the country.

Everyone seems to have an incentive to delay the denouement of the legislative loophole that is blocking progress. Republicans — for all their bold talk — don’t want the fight because the stakes of losing are too high. Many Democrats — including some public supporters of filibuster elimination — are worried about losing the fight. Other Democrats are worried about what will happen if they win and can no longer blame a minority of Republicans for inaction on Democratic agenda items like the $15 minimum wage and immigration reform.

The assumption has been that the confrontation over the filibuster would happen when voting rights legislation comes to the floor. On paper, this makes sense. What better time to debate an anti-democratic legislative loophole than a bill that would help stop a minority party from rigging elections in their favor. However, much to the dismay of people like myself who believe that Republicans are on the cusp of a dangerous and irrevocable power grab, momentum for voting rights legislation is flagging.

President Biden barely mentioned the fight for voting rights legislation in his otherwise excellent Joint Session speech. Senator Joe Machin poured cold water on everyone’s hopes and dreams when he told Vox’s Andrew Prokop:

“How in the world could you, with the tension we have right now, allow a voting bill to restructure the voting of America on a partisan line?”

While a lot can be done through budget reconciliation, much of the Democratic agenda – and many key Biden campaign promises – depends on nuking the filibuster. Biden has talked a lot about his desire to be a transformative president like Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The filibuster is a big obstacle to that goal.

The fight over the filibuster is coming; the only question is when and how. If the filibuster is going down — which is a VERY open question at this point — it is only going to happen over an issue with immediate urgency that fires up Democratic activists but also has bipartisan support, a long record of Republican obstruction, and will be something Joe Manchin supports (ugh). I wish voting rights were that issue, but clearly, it isn’t.

Here’s why I think a fight over gun safety legislation is our best – and maybe last – shot to take down the filibuster and save democracy.

Gun Safety Laws are Popular with Both Parties

The idea that Democrats lose elections by talking about guns has been calcified conventional wisdom for decades. It’s one of those tropes that pundits and washed-up political consultants spout on cable news sets without any data to back up their opinions. To their credit, the vast majority of elected Democrats moved on from this tired, incorrect idea a long time ago. Still, an aura of political hesitancy surrounds the effort to pass new gun safety laws.

However, the polls are clear. Democratic ideas to reform gun safety laws are incredibly popular. According to a recent Navigator Poll, sixty percent of Americans — including one-third of Republicans — believe gun laws should be stronger.

A Morning Consult poll found that 84 percent of voters and 77 percent of Republicans support requiring a background check for all gun purchases. In polarized times on a supposedly polarizing issue, this level of Republican support is essentially unprecedented.

Obvious Urgency

We are reminded on a daily basis about the urgency of dealing with gun violence in America. Mass shootings, suicides, accidental deaths, and domestic violence incidents are all a product of our batshit insane gun culture and a politics broken by special interest and Republican nihilism. According to the advocacy group, Everytown for Gun Safety:

In the ten years between 2009 and 2018, 1,121 people were shot and killed in the United States in mass shootings, and 836 more were shot and wounded. 

Passing new laws won’t solve all of these problems or stop all of the shootings, but it would save a lot of lives. Democrats can credibly and persuasively argue that they must get rid of the filibuster to save lives. Making that argument is pushing on an open door. The Navigator poll found that 60 percent of voters and nearly half of Republicans believe gun violence is either a crisis or a major issue.

Ultimately, Manchin, Sinema, and the other moderates need to be able to go home and explain to their constituents why they changed their mind on the filibuster. There is bipartisan agreement that gun violence is an urgent crisis – and it is one that can only be addressed by eliminating the filibuster.

A Decade of Obstruction

I have worked in politics for more than two decades. In that time, Congress has not passed a single piece of significant gun safety legislation. Not one. In fact, America’s response to the rising tide of gun violence was to fall backwards. When I started in politics, assault weapons were banned. They aren’t anymore. Gun manufacturers could be held legally liable. Now, they have nearly unprecedented protections.

In many ways, this policy’s stasis was due to a bipartisan unspoken agreement. Republicans addicted to the money, and organizing muscle of the National Rifle Association were content with the status quo. Democrats were convinced (incorrectly, in my view) that their losses in 1994 and 2000 were a direct result of their efforts to pass gun safety laws. For a lot of Democrats of that era, the less said about guns, the better.

The utterly devastating shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, upended this dynamic. For the first time in this century, there was actual momentum to do something about the senseless gun violence plaguing America. In the Senate, there was a bipartisan push to implement universal background checks and close the gun show loophole. That piece of legislation had the support of more than 50 Senators, but it, and the momentum to respond to the tragedy in Newtown — were stopped in their tracks by a Republican-led filibuster.

The lead sponsor of that gun safety bill was none other than West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.

Engineering the Confrontation

Eventually, Senate Democrats are going to have to call the question on the filibuster. Talking around it can only last so long. As popular progressive legislation passes in the House and piles up on Senator Schumer’s doorstep, the volunteers and activists that delivered the Democratic Senate are going to lose patience. Holding onto Congress in 2022 is going to be difficult under all circumstances, but it will be impossible if our Democratic voters lose faith in the value of having the Senate.

At some point in the near-ish future, there will be a confrontation in the Senate. Democrats will push a piece of legislation with majority support, and Republicans will block it using the filibuster. How that confrontation comes to be and how it plays out will be critical. It’s better that it happens at a time and place chosen by the Democrats to maximize public attention and the odds of success. Here’s what I believe needs to happen:

  • Exhaust Bipartisanship: This is the first step. Manchin is currently working with Senator Pat Toomey, who was his cosponsor on another bipartisan effort in 2013. According to a report in Punchbowl News, that effort is going nowhere fast. Toomey voted to remove Trump from office, and therefore, his involvement is nearly as problematic for other Republican Senators as a Democrat would be. This is why bipartisanship has so little chance of success. The Republicans most likely to engage in bipartisanship are also the Republicans most likely to be anathemas to the GOP base. However, that effort needs to play out to prove to everyone (including Manchin) that there is no other option.

  • Signal the Play and Set a Timer: Here’s a hard truth for political junkies and political reporters: the average voter does not care or even know about what is happening on Capitol Hill. Most can’t name their representatives. Some can’t name their senator. And none of them understand the rules. This is a failure of civic education, but it is also a communications challenge for activists looking to put pressure on the Senate to eliminate or reform the filibuster. Senator Schumer should indicate publicly that there will be a vote on filibuster reform before a date certain. This will give advocates (like the team at Vote Save America) something to organize around. Simultaneously, Schumer should declare a date by which he will call a vote on gun safety legislation. This will signal to the press that a fight is coming and will therefore generate more coverage of the issue and the surrounding circumstances.

  • Work with the Organizers: Everytown, Moms Demand, and Gabby Giffords’ organization are filled with some of the best, most committed organizers in the party. Tying the future of gun safety legislation to the fate of the filibuster will immediately bring to bear an army of organizers ready to fight.

  • Be Willing to Accept a Half Loaf: None of this works without Joe Manchin. Despite his courage and leadership in the wake of Sandy Hook, Manchin is still much more conservative on guns than you or I. In fact, he opposes the recently passed House bill. This is annoying and makes almost no substantive or political sense, but it means that the only bill that could pass in the Senate in a post-filibuster world is one that is more to Manchin’s liking. This bill will be far from sufficient, but to bust the dam of obstruction, we will need advocates to push for it with all the enthusiasm they had for the ambitious approach that passed in the House.

What You Can Do

The fight to kill the filibuster will only come to a head if Democratic senators feel real pressure from the base. This is a two-fold effort, pushing them to move on gun safety legislation and raising the salience of the filibuster as the obstacle to this hugely popular, bipartisan, and absolutely necessary legislation. Here are some ideas on how you can help:

  • Call Your Senator: Moms Demand Action has a call tool that will connect you with your senator to push them to pass background check legislation. The more calls, the more pressure, the more likely it is they will be forced to call a vote.

  • Find Out Where Your Senator Stands: Vote Save America has a handy site that has the most recent comments on the filibuster for Democrats. Find out what your senator believes and if it’s not sufficient, call them using the VSA call tool.

  • Join the Fight: Sign up to become a volunteer for Moms Demand Action or another group and join with advocates in your community.

  • Post on Social Media: I know this can feel like spitting in the ocean, but every bit matters. Use your platform to call on Congress to do something to stop gun violence in America. In your posts, I recommend constantly including the fact that these laws have bipartisan support and are incredibly popular. Use the poll numbers in this post. Popularity begets more popularity by creating a bandwagon effect. The specific numbers help sand down some of the partisan reactions to these posts.

It must be said that Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden cannot make Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema change their positions on the filibuster. Despite the cinematic and historically oversimplified renderings of Lyndon Johnson, presidents have shockingly limited leverage over individual senators — particularly when those senators depend on voters from the other party to remain in office. Even if the odds are against them, Schumer and Biden must try, and they must try publicly. Anonymous leaks to Politico or Punch Bowl about the continued obstinance of the “Do-Nothing Caucus” is not going to be enough. There will be a political price of trying and failing, but it will be nothing compared to the political price of not trying.

If there is going to be a big fight for the future of democracy, it's hard to think of a more righteous and pressing issue to fight over than stopping the scourge of gun violence.