photo: iStock

The defeat of the Senate Democrats' proposals and general inability of the Congress to meaningfully address the U.S.'s gun problem has now led to a sit-in by House Democrats. Led by Representative John Lewis, who was a civil rights activist in the 1960s, the men and women now seated on the floor of their legislative chamber are demanding a vote on gun legislation similar to what their Senate colleagues proposed and failed to pass. 

All this comes about a week after a lone shooter killed 49 people and injured dozens more at an Orlando club that serves the LGBTQ community, Democrat senators tried and failed to pass commonsense gun legislation to help prevent the next attack. And, here is what you need to know about the U.S.'s love of guns and inability to effectively curb its astronomical level of gun violence. 

Related From Vivala: The Great Gun Debate: Will Things Ever Change?


What was that filibuster about?

Senate Democrats, led by Chris Murphy of Connecticut, held a 15-hour-long filibuster to force a vote on new gun legislation in wake of the massacre of 49 mostly LGBTQ Latinos and their allies at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Senator Murphy told his colleagues, “I’ve had enough of the ongoing slaughter of innocents, and I’ve had enough of inaction in this body.” As he ended the filibuster, he said, “Ask yourself, what can you do to make sure that Orlando or Sandy Hook never ever happens again?”


What did the Senate ultimately vote on?

The Democrats as well as Republicans presented new gun legislation to close glaring loopholes. The Democrats sought to prohibit the sale of firearms and explosives to suspected terrorists, and to expand background checks for purchases, including those made at gun shows. The Republicans, in countermeasures, sought to delay the sale of guns to suspected terrorists, and to increase funding for background checks. 


How did senators vote?

With few exceptions, the Senators voted along party lines and none of the proposed measures passed. For example, 41 of the Senate’s 44 Democrats voted in favor of their party’s proposal to expand background checks. Only Democratic Senators Jon Tester (Montana), Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota), and Joe Manchin (West Virginia) voted in opposition to the measure. Only one of the Senate’s 54 Republicans strayed from party consensus. Republican Mark Kirk, of Illinois, cosponsored the amendment to prevent suspected terrorists from legally buying firearms and explosives. He voted in favor of both of the Democrats’ proposals and against both of the Republicans’ counter-proposals. 


What do Americans think about expanded background checks?

photo: Pew Research Center

The public is largely in agreement about the need to expand background checks for gun purchases. In a July 2015 survey, Pew Research found that 85 percent of the public (88 percent of Democrats and 79 percent of Republicans) wants to close the background check loopholes for gun shows and private gun sales. 


What do Americans think about military-grade weapons in civilian hands?

On the issue of the sale of military-grade weapons to civilians, which was not put to a vote this week, Americans are less in unison. While 70 percent of Democrats support a ban on such weapons, only 48 percent of Republicans do. Assault weapons are frequently the weapon of choice in mass shootings.        


How did Florida's Republican senator vote?

At least one surviving victim of the Orlando massacre thanked the office of Florida Senator Marco Rubio for its support. But Senator Rubio, like most of his Republican colleagues, voted against the Democrats’ proposals to keep guns out of the wrong hands. Senator Rubio released a statement that said, “At the end of the day, we know that law-abiding Americans will abide by whatever laws are passed affecting their Second Amendments rights, and that criminals and terrorists will keep ignoring these laws.” He did vote in support of the much less restrictive Republican proposals. “The Democrat proposals are politically motivated and driven by a larger ideological agenda to disarm Americans.” 


What's the big deal over the Second Amendment?

The Second Amendment, found in the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution, reads, “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” This amendment is at the heart of the gun debate. While some interpret the amendment to mean that it is militias’ right to bear arms encoded, others separate the phrases and conclude that civilians not in militias have the right to bear arms. Also, the Founding Fathers did not know what firearms would look like in 2016; there were no AR-15s when the Second Amendment was written. What is not generally debated is the notion that the writers of the Bill of Rights wanted to give Americans protections against a possible tyrannical government. Hugo Chavez-Rey, a Latino Republican leader who was recently interviewed for Vivala, said, “Disarming the citizenry is the first step to tyranny.”


More guns or less guns for increased safety?

Another point of contention between gun control supporters and opponents is how to stave off the mass shootings and violent crime for which the U.S. is globally notorious. Gun control supporters say less guns will help stop shootings; gun control opponents argue that more guns will help stop shootings. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, said a week after a 20-year-old killed 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012. 


What does the NRA have to do with all this?

The National Rifle Association (NRA) is the gun industry’s premier lobbying group. While there is ideology at play in the gun debate, there is a lot of money to be made. For example, profits from gun sales spike after mass shootings, including by members of the LGBT community after the Orlando massacre. As is generally the case with political lobbying, profits are at the heart of the activity. This is why candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have repeatedly criticized money in politics. Under the current system, U.S. policy, domestic as well as foreign, is too often for sale to the highest bidder. Last year, the NRA spent over $3.5 million in lobbying. With the U.S. gun industry generating nearly $50 billion in economic activity in 2015, according to the Firearms and Ammunition Industry Economic Impact Report, $3.5 million in lobbying is a lucrative investment. The Republican senators who voted against the Democrats’ gun legislation include John McCain (Arizona, has taken nearly $8 million from the NRA), Cory Gardner (Colorado, nearly $4 million from the NRA), and Tom Cotton (Arkansas, nearly $2 million from the NRA).     


So what?

photo: Christopher Reeve

The United States is the only developed country with cities on the 50 Most Violent Cities in the World list. It is also the only country that experiences the mass shooting phenomenon that has become a part of life in public spaces. Perhaps people in the richest country in the world are more violent than their peers in other developed states. Or perhaps the difference lies in access to guns, some of which were made not to protect homes or hunt deer but to kill as many human beings as possible in as little time as possible. In 1996, the Australian government enacted gun control legislation after a lone shooter killed 35 people. The measures banned semi-automatic weapons, established long waiting periods for purchases, and included a buy-back program. Australia has not had a single mass shooting incident since then. On an average day in the U.S., 91 people are killed by guns. The U.S.’s per-capita gun ownership rate is No.1 globally. Perhaps after the next high-profile mass shooting Congress can find a bipartisan compromise that improves the safety and quality of life of Americans while honoring the country’s Second Amendment.