Over his 35 years in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has gained a reputation as a canny navigator of the political winds. In recent years, he has survived the rise of both the Tea Party movement and Trumpism, despite initially being targeted by both. But McConnell’s refusal to let the Senate vote on a landmark bill to strengthen America’s background check system, which the House passed exactly one year ago, could prove to be a permanent stain on his legacy as a master tactician.
The anniversary comes one day after a gunman killed five people at the Molson Coors campus in Milwaukee and then died by suicide. While we’re still learning the details of what happened, this tragedy underscores the fact that America is in the grip of a gun violence crisis that includes both mass killings and daily shootings that plague communities around the nation.
The first step to stopping the bloodshed is passing stronger laws, starting with closing the giant loopholes in America's background check system. Right now, nearly a quarter of Americans who obtain firearms do so without a background check. Last year’s House bill, which won bipartisan support, will close these deadly gaps and make it far more difficult for people with dangerous histories to get their hands on a gun.
Even GOP supports background checks
For an overwhelming majority of Americans, this step is long overdue. According to one poll last summer, a remarkable 93% of registered voters supported strengthening background checks, including 89% of Republicans. And in McConnell’s home state of Kentucky, 83% of Republicans and 90% of gun owners support background checks on all gun sales.
To understand why McConnell is siding with the National Rifle Association, which fiercely opposes the House background check bill, instead of a clear majority of his own constituents, you need to go back three decades.
The deadliest mass shooting in Kentucky history occurred on Sept. 14, 1989, when a disgruntled former employee fatally shot eight people at the Standard Gravure printing press in Louisville.
At the time, McConnell was a freshman senator from Kentucky, running for his second term. Back in Washington, the Senate was gearing up to consider federal gun safety legislation. But McConnell was silent on the shooting and the proposed legislation when he was out on the campaign trail. It wasn’t until the bill finally came up for a vote that McConnell issued a statement. In words that could have been written by the NRA, McConnell said that the legislation would be ineffective, and that “the real problem is keeping guns out of the hands of criminals."
The NRA ended up contributing to his campaign, and McConnell won reelection.
This cemented a strategy that has guided McConnell’s approach to gun violence ever since: Never allow an inch of daylight to show between him and the gun lobby. After every high-profile mass shooting, you can count on McConnell to say very little and do even less.
As a public servant, McConnell’s position is a gross dereliction of duty. Nearly 40,000 Americans are killed by gun violence a year.
Seismic political shift on guns
As an ambitious politician, however, McConnell’s allegiance to the gun lobby makes cynical sense. The NRA has repaid McConnell handsomely for carrying its water, pouring $1.3 million into his Senate campaigns.
The organization also played a key role in helping him accumulate power. In 2014, the NRA spent more than $23 million in a successful attempt to create a Republican majority in the Senate. Two years later, it spent $30 million to elect President Donald Trump, making the NRA his largest outside donor.
What McConnell doesn’t seem to realize yet is that the political calculus around gun safety has undergone a seismic shift. Which is surprising, because he doesn’t need to look far to unearth proof that legislative bodies that take their marching orders from the NRA are an endangered species.
In the 2018 midterms, Americans in red, blue and purple states elected a gun sense majority to the U.S. House. That majority wasted no time sending McConnell a slate of long overdue gun safety bills, including the background check expansion.
Now only crickets: Donald Trump called for 'strong background checks' after El Paso and Dayton.
One year later, Virginia proved that the midterms were not a fluke. In the aftermath of the tragic mass shooting in Virginia Beach, the GOP majority in the statehouse took a page from McConnell’s playbook and gaveled out of a special session on gun safety without taking up a single bill. Voters responded by replacing NRA-backed lawmakers with gun safety champions, creating another gun sense majority. This reversal is especially notable because the NRA is headquartered in Virginia, which means the once-vaunted organization can no longer defend its own backyard.
As a student of history, McConnell surely knows that the annals of Congress are littered with lawmakers who fell out of power when they fell out of step with the people. The longer McConnell allows the “criminals” he invoked 30 years ago to buy guns with no questions asked, the more closely his legacy — and his Senate majority — will be tied to the faltering NRA and its deadly agenda.
John Feinblatt is a gun safety advocate and president of the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnFeinblatt
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Voters want expanded gun background checks. Senate should listen.