Hearts and prayers are not enough: Congress must act now to address gun violence

Another shooting, this time in a Brooklyn subway, and it’s all the same.

Even “Breaking News” flashing urgently on my screen. Same images on the news; same reports by journalists with few details to report. Although in this case, I come across a difference: the cracking voice of a WNBC News reporter as he reveals that his own children live in the neighborhood of the shooting.

But other than that, it’s all the same. Same images of injured people, slumped on the ground; same increase in the number of victims (five reported at 11:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m. at 11:30 a.m., 4:00 p.m. at 12:25 p.m.); same yellow crime scene tape; same swarm of stenciled windbreakers converging on the scene (NYPD, MTA, FBI, DHS, ATF); the same politicians gathering in front of a nest of microphones — good people, well-meaning people, I believe — saying the same things we’ve been hearing for decades. Hearts and prayers and condolences.

And the same nod and tightness of the throat before moving on, pushing him away against the remote control or a computer link.

It is the longest rerun in American media. We’ve been in danger longer than Jeopardy.

Everything is the same, which is another way of saying that nothing will change. We will continue to see it, report it, absorb it, process it, grimace it, move past it. We will continue to tolerate political leaders who offer their hearts and prayers but vote against any sensible gun safety legislation.

How is this possible, people ask? Why, if 80% of Americans support common sense gun safety, is Congress paralyzed? Why, if people are dying every day, is there no action? According to National Archive of Gun Violence, in the first 98 days of 2022 alone, gun violence caused 5,149 deaths (homicides, murders and unintentional acts); 6,732 suicides; 9,441 injured; and 131 mass shootings. Eighty-four children under the age of 11 were murdered. Think of it this way: your child multiplied by eighty-four.

Why?

The answer came to me one day on Capitol Hill, as my colleagues and I were packing into one of those members-only elevators for a round of voting on the House floor. We had spent hours on the appropriations committee, debating various amendments to gun safety: enhanced background checks, “no-fly-no-buy.” The proposals were, well, rejected by a combination of hard ideology and soft political expediency. In this elevator, a deputy shared his remorse for having voted against each amendment.

I told him that I didn’t understand. I had seen the polls, and the policies had the support of 80% of his voters.

It’s true, he replied. But it was the 20% who would beat him in a primary that worried him.

The truth hurts, and in some cases it kills.

It’s called voter intensity – that problem that whips up energy against an incumbent in a tight race. The redistricting of Congress and the consolidation of the bases of the two political parties, among other factors, have drawn the constituencies further to the left and further to the right. Which means neighborhoods have become safer but much more ideological.

As a result, most members fear losing their election not to the opposing party, but to a primary challenge from someone more extreme than themselves. And a litmus test for conservative voters, even in moderate districts, is guns. Anything less than absolute loyalty to the gun lobby is an invitation to a primal challenge.

Admit it, the gun lobby is mightier than a speed bullet. And so, the incumbent survives the next primary. And the next and the one after.

Those 5,149 killed in murders, homicides and accidents? Not so lucky.

Several years ago I tried to explain everything in a book, written from inside Congress. “big gunswas decently received by critics, not so much by booksellers. During my reading tour, an NPR interviewer, in that “holier than thou” intonation, shared that the book was too cynical. She was upset that it didn’t have a happy ending, a quick and clean resolution. (You know, like Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer holding hands at a bill-signing ceremony for universal background checks under soft pink skies in the Rose Garden). She insisted that, at some point, Congress would surely do something. He had to !

This is not the case.

Turns out the book wasn’t a satire after all. It was more non-fiction than fiction. A comment that Congress won’t change anything, until we change Congress. Or stop the politically incendiary practice of drawing districts so that loud but narrow ideologues drown out the big center. Or match the intensity of pro-gun lobby voters with the intensity of anti-gun lobby voters.

Until then, expect more of the same. Of course, my heart and prayers go out to those shot and killed in Brooklyn. But a law that at least puts a stop to this carnage would be much more useful.

Steve Israel represented New York in the United States House of Representatives for eight terms and served as Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now Director of the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy Institute of Politics and Global Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.

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