The assault weapons ban: A case study in the politics of frivolity

The Week
A Senate panel approved an assault weapons ban by a 10-8 vote. Its chances for passage in the full Senate? Slim to none.
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A Senate panel approved an assault weapons ban by a 10-8 vote. Its chances for passage in the full Senate? Slim to none.

Once again, our lawmakers cloak unpassable legislation in base-pleasing rhetoric

The Senate Judiciary Committee last week approved a measure that would reinstitute the assault weapons ban. Big news, right? The bill will now head to the entire Senate for a vote... unless of course Republicans filibuster... but nevertheless, this is big, right?

Wrong.

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The New York Times story detailing the measure's passage described the bill as "almost certain to fail if brought before the entire Senate." It "has almost zero chance of even receiving a hearing in the House." Nor should it be since all available evidence suggests that an assault weapons ban would have a negligible impact on safety. Of course, that point is one of substance, and nothing about the debate over the proposed AWB has anything to do with whether it will or will not work. Everything about the proposed renewal of the AWB is theatrics and serves as yet another example of the triumph of style at the expense of substance in our national politics. 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is a very bright woman and a very good politician. When she proposed the new AWB, she knew there was a zero percent chance that it would become law. But she also knew that the people who voted for her are, by and large, anti-gun. More importantly, as the author of the original Brady Bill, Sen. Feinstein is widely viewed as the darling of the anti-gun movement and its allies. By proposing the AWB, Sen. Feinstein can tell all of the donors who care about the gun issue that she fought for the most aggressive legislation possible, and that she will keep fighting — which will lead to more donations.

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Feinstein is not the only senator loving every second of coverage of the Senate's consideration of a bill that will literally never even get a vote in the House of Representatives. The most vocal members of the right are also loving it. Take Ted Cruz, for example. By now, you have probably seen the "heated" exchange between Feinstein and the fiery junior senator from Texas, in which Cruz lectures Feinstein about the Second Amendment and Feinstein snaps back that she is not a sixth grader. Well, that was gold, for both of the senators. Cruz is basically just the opposite of Feinstein in that he was elected and funded by people who love firearms and hate the Assault Weapons Ban with a visceral passion. So every time that clip of the two senators played on television, the people who donated (or might now donate) to Cruz's campaign to fight for guns cheered him for taking on the California liberal who they believe intends to eliminate all of their Constitutional rights. Feinstein's supporters applauded her for standing up to the gun-toting punk from Texas who does not care about the victims of Newtown or about the safety of Americans.

So everyone wins, right? Wrong.

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The biggest loser is the American people. Political symbolism has value, but there are too many problems that Congress might actually have the capacity to solve for our leaders to be spending all of their time focused on proposals both sides know will never make it to the president's desk. That applies to House Republicans (stop repealing ObamaCare, it's a waste of time) and Senate Democrats (stop wasting time on gun control measures you know will not pass). Our leaders must get out of the habit of wasting taxpayer resources drafting, amending, debating, and voting on legislation that has no chance of becoming law. Solve the problems you can, and save the individual wish lists for public speeches and your Maddow/Hannity appearances.

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