Two weeks ago, I was checking Twitter one last time before bed. That day, the U.S. Senate had failed to pass the Manchin-Toomey compromise, a bipartisan bill expanding background checks for gun buyers that a vast majority — more than 80 percent — of Americans supported. The headlines saying as much rolled through my feed one after another, like a record stuck on repeat.
I registered the information with a deep sigh. It's the kind of defeated resignation with which I've come to greet such news of governmental incompetence. I live in Georgia. I'm used to disappointment.
Then appeared a link to a New York Times editorial written by Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who, in 2011, was shot point-blank in the head and survived. In it, Giffords rails on senators whom she says failed to represent their constituents and instead "made their decision based on political fear and on cold calculations about the money of special interests like the National Rifle Association."
It is a powerful piece, imbued with the kind of emotion that only someone who has experienced the terror of gun violence firsthand can offer. Giffords finishes with a call to action, imploring Americans to vote out representatives who are more focused on their own interests than their communities'.
I lay back and thought about the urgency of her words. I went from feeling angry to feeling frustrated and helpless. The bill failed to pass by six votes — two of those nays had come from my home state courtesy of Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson.
Living in Georgia comes with certain political realities, a red-white-and-blue-knuckled grip on the Second Amendment being one of them. That two Republican senators from the South voted against universal background checks for gun buyers isn't a surprise. Nor is the fact that Chambliss, during his most recent election, was one of the gun lobby's biggest beneficiaries in the Senate. Isakson also enjoys the gun lobby's seal of approval, which he makes sure to tell constituents.
But what was less expected, perhaps, were the results of a February poll by Mayors Against Illegal Guns that found 91 percent of Georgians support mandatory background checks in all situations. Not only am I not alone in thinking that reform is needed, I'm not even in the minority for once.
When CL asked Chambliss's press secretary why the senator voted against the measure, she said he didn't feel the "amendment [was] the right way to go." Isakson's spokeswoman said he had "concerns over its potential impact on private sales and on privacy issues." But when asked for specifics — What were Isakson's concerns regarding private sales? How would Chambliss have improved the amendment? — the senators responded with silence.
Georgia ranks 10th in the nation for gun-related violence, according to a new study by the Center for American Progress. CAP's report finds strong ties between loose state gun laws and high rates of violence. Georgians, according to polls, wanted action to help curb that violence. Our position was made clear, and promptly ignored by those who are supposed to advocate on our behalf.
There's an expectation that elected officials will represent the will of the public. And if they go against the wishes of the majority of their constituents, there is the expectation that they'll at least offer a clear line of reasoning and fight to find a workable resolution. None of that happened in this case. Chambliss and Isakson could have been part of a solution. Instead, they decided to continue being part of the problem.
Expanding background checks is yet another item to add to the rapidly growing list of issues, including gay marriage and immigration, which Republican lawmakers tend to ignore rather than smartly address. Such bullheadedness recently cost them a presidential election. That our Senators are out of step with the nation is a given. That they would be so far out of step with their electorate is less expected.
Calling out a couple of politicians for serving their own self-interests and, well, acting like a couple of politicians might seem naive, even futile. But rather than feeling helpless, we should feel compelled to hold our representatives publicly accountable, especially when voting them out of office is not an immediate option.
Isakson, long considered a moderate Republican who helped create Georgia's background-check system as a state senator in the mid-1990s, was just re-elected in 2010, so he's here to stay until at least 2016. And Chambliss will retire next year, so there's no justice at the ballot to be had there, either.
I know expanded background checks won't solve every gun-related problem — violence is too deeply rooted in our culture for that to be the case. But the amendment was and is a long-overdue step toward ending gun sales that can put firearms into the wrong hands. Bill co-sponsor Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., announced this weekend he would reintroduce the legislation.
My personal experience with guns is limited. I have shot guns exactly one time at a local shooting range. I thought it was pretty fun.
I don't hate guns. I do, however, loathe the very real horror they can inflict outside of a shooting range. I also despise the culture of fear perpetuated by the NRA and the rest of the gun lobby that would have everyone believe that the only answer to violence is more violence.
We're locked in a groove, a broken record stuck on repeat. We need leaders with the courage to change the tune.