The current political arrangements of the United States – not its revered Constitution – are having such perverse effects that a favourable vote in the Senate, 54 to 46, for a moderate gun-control bill, in response to a widespread, powerful and fully justified horror at the massacre of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., amounted to a defeat of the bill.
Quite possibly, the bill would have been defeated in the House of Representatives. But passage by the Senate might just have shamed the other chamber into doing what most congressmen surely know is the right thing to do: to extend background checks for would-be gun purchasers to transactions on the Internet, at gun shows and advertised sales, so as to make it difficult for criminals, people with severe mental illnesses and people with a history of domestic violence, to buy guns.
In his strong response to the vote, President Barack Obama spoke of the “continuing distortion of Senate rules.” That was a mild comment in an otherwise impassioned speech. In the past six years, since the Democrats won a majority, the Senate has allowed the possibility of a filibuster – not even the threat of one – to be treated as an actual filibuster. The technicalities are baroque, to put it politely, but the upshot is that Senate votes in the ordinary course require a supermajority. There is no hint of this in the Constitution.
If there is to be the effect of a filibuster, the minority party should have to bear the burden of carrying out an actual filibuster.
Parliamentary procedure is a dry subject, far from the overwhelming grief of the murder of small children, but sometimes the worst human tragedies intersect with institutional complexities.
So far, the U.S. Congress has failed to deal reasonably with gun control. Many politicians live in fear of primaries. The voters ought to take a much more active role, and associations that favour gun control should be as ruthless with politicians as the National Rifle Association itself. This is not a matter of electing fewer Republicans; many in the GOP know that the U.S. needs to restrain the gun culture.
As Mr. Obama said on Wednesday, even if a bill like this one were to save only a single life, it would be worth it.