Gun Control

The Senate's Latest Gun Bill Will Fail, but Not Because of the Filibuster

Democrats love to blame their troubles on Senate rules. They should look in the mirror instead.


The wanton killing of 19 students and two teachers during a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, last week has jump-started efforts on Capitol Hill to pass legislation combating gun violence in the United States. Democrats have a razor-thin majority in the Senate, and Republicans have so far opposed their leading proposals. Proponents of strict new gun laws are arguing that if the Senate fails to pass a gun bill, it will be because a minority of mostly-Republican senators filibustered the effort.

But the prospect of being defeated by a filibuster isn't stopping some senators from trying to get something passed. Sen. Chris Murphy (D–Conn.), noted that Democrats are "going to extend a hand of partnership to those who have been sitting on the sidelines." Murphy has teamed up with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D–Ariz.), to convene a bipartisan group of 10 senators—five from each side of the aisle—to negotiate a compromise bill that expands background checks to cover all gun purchases and prohibits people from purchasing a firearm if the government determines that they pose a danger to themselves or others. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.) stated that this joint effort is likely "the only approach that will result in law."

Democrats were also quick to blame Republicans if their effort to pass a gun bill again stalls in the Senate. Anticipating such an outcome, Democrats have threatened to force senators to a vote if the bipartisan talks fail. Murphy warned Republicans that Democrats are determined to get them on the record. Outside of the Capitol on May 26 at a gun control rally Murphy said, "One way or the other, we are going to have a debate [in the Senate]. We are going to force [senators] to tell America which side they are on."

Democrats plan to force Republicans to filibuster a gun bill if they don't come to the negotiating table. The prospect has re-ignited opposition to the filibuster among Democrats and progressive activists. And it has triggered calls for Senate Democrats to abolish it. But it will not be the filibuster's fault if a gun bill stalls in the Senate. 

It will be the senators' fault for not really trying to pass a bill in the first place. Democrats' previous efforts—or lack thereof—to pass gun control legislation suggest that their latest line-in-the-sand bravado doesn't reflect a serious attempt on their part to get a bill through the Senate with or without Republican votes. Instead of engaging in the legislative process to pass a bill, Democrats are following the same old script that they have used after every mass shooting. The script hasn't worked before, and there's no reason to believe it'll work now. 

By now, the Democrats' song and dance is quite familiar. It begins with quick expressions of outrage followed by impassioned calls for action and promises of bipartisanship. After a climatic period of inaction, the script ends amid an acrimonious round of finger-pointing when the Senate's effort to pass a gun bill stalls. After that, senators typically lose interest in the issue. 

The closest that senators have come to writing a new ending to this script was in 2013, just months after a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School killed 20 children and 6 adults. That tragic event—the deadliest school shooting in the nation's history—spurred senators to debate a gun bill. That effort stalled, however, when four Democrats joined 41 Republicans to prevent an up-or-down vote on the bill after a tightly controlled debate over just three days failed to end in a compromise. Democrats were quick to blame the filibuster, but they also prevented three Republican proposals from passing on a simple-majority vote. And all senators were quick to drop the issue after debating it for just three days.

Senators didn't revisit the gun issue again until 2015 when they cast drive-by votes on dueling gun bills just one day after a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, killed 14 people. And just like they did in 2013, senators were quick to accept defeat and move on to other things after both efforts fell short. Senators would continue to decry mass shootings in the months after their last attempt to force the Senate to consider the issue—including after the deadliest mass shooting in American history in 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada, which killed 60 people.

During this most recent iteration of their failed script, Democrats were quick to demand action. Schumer declared that the Senate "must pursue action and even ask Republicans to join us." Sinema acknowledged that "if there is a chance for us to do something to help make it safer for kids in this country, we owe it to the country to do it for real, not just talking points." And in a passionate speech on the Senate floor, Murphy pleaded with Republicans to come to the negotiating table: "I am here on this floor to beg, to literally get down on my hands and knees and beg my colleagues: Find a path forward here. Work with us to find a way to pass laws that make [mass shootings] less likely."

Democrats' sense of urgency to act on gun control legislation appears insincere when juxtaposed to their inaction on the issue over the last year and a half. The Senate has not debated a gun bill, and senators have not cast a single vote on a gun bill in the 117th Congress. Moreover, two House-passed bills—the Bipartisan Background Checks Act (H.R. 8) and the Enhanced Background Checks Act (H.R. 1446)—are awaiting action in the Senate more than a year after they made it through the House. But Schumer waited until after the Uvalde shooting to start the process required to debate the bills on the Senate floor.

Judging by their actions, rank-and-file Democrats are also unwilling to do what it takes to advance gun control legislation in the Senate. For example, Murphy—the Democrats' point person on gun control—characterized the Senate's inaction on a gun bill as  "a choice." And he argued that it was the wrong choice. That meant that failure "is not inevitable" and that the ongoing spate of mass shootings in the nation's schools "is not unchangeable." Murphy pleaded that this time would be different and that the Senate would debate and vote on legislation to address the issue. However, like Schumer, Murphy has chosen not to force his colleagues to debate gun control legislation on the Senate floor, much less vote on it, even though he could have done so at any point in the past year.

This is striking because the Senate's rules empower all senators—not just its majority leader—to force votes on legislation. In the aftermath of the Uvalde shooting, Murphy declared that the Senate is "never going to give up until we win this fight." However, his unwillingness to use the Senate's rules to win that fight implies that he has already given up. All Murphy had to do was move to proceed to a bill and file cloture on it. Doing so would have forced senators to go on the record in support of or opposition to stricter gun laws before the shooting in Uvalde.

The filibuster will not be why the Senate's latest effort to pass a gun bill fails. Senators have no one to blame but themselves.