By Jayson Jacoby
I felt a queer mix of emotions Wednesday as I watched relatives of the Newtown shooting massacre join President Obama to lament that the U.S. Senate had rejected a bill expanding background checks for gun sales.
I was sad, obviously.
It’s impossible to feel otherwise when I think of the tragedy these people endured so recently. I doubt anyone truly recovers from such a shock. The pain subsides, numbed by the inexorable and terrible passage of time, but this cuts both ways.
Every year thickens the cushion against that initial, seemingly insurmountable grief. But each year also lacerates the old wounds with a series of milestones, of birthdays never celebrated, of graduations and weddings that will never happen.
I was also angry.
I understand that no one forced these people to become symbols of a divisive legislative debate, yet it seems to me that neither are these victims fully in control, as it were.
It’s a natural reaction, of course, for people who have suffered so much to try to spare others from a similar ordeal. I admire the Newtown survivors’ bravery and their commitment.
But it seems to me unnecessarily cruel that, just four months after they lost so much, these people should stand before the cameras and witness another defeat which in comparison means so little.
The implication, or so it seemed to me, is that the bill might have passed if only lawmakers could have brought the survivors to Washington, D.C., while their cheeks were still wet with tears.
“If we’d have gone to a bill like this immediately, boom,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who helped write the legislation which would expand background checks for gun sales to include online buys and transactions at gun shows.
I’m certain that neither Manchin nor any of the bill’s other supporters wanted to use grief to garner votes. There was a tingle of exploitation here but perhaps it could not have been avoided.
Anyway I don’t believe that grief, or anger, ought to override sober contemplation in creating laws.
That said, the third sense I had on Wednesday was surprise.
I was perplexed that just 54 of the 100 senators believe all gun sales should be treated the same. That was six fewer votes than was needed to pass the bill.
To be clear, I’m a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment. I find its wording admirably clear and its intent, as a result, equally obvious: U.S. citizens have a constitutional right to own guns.
But this right is not sacrosanct.
We have, for instance, as a society decided that people who commit certain felonies have forfeited their right to own a gun.
I think this is both a wise precaution, and a constitutionally sound one.
Even the National Rifle Association, which is, well, a trifle sensitive about matters related to gun ownership, doesn’t seem eager to give paroled murderers the run of their local gun shop.
Yet the organization, and nearly half of our senators, oppose the expansion of background checks, which is intended to make it more difficult for people who none of us wants to have a gun, to get one.
“Intended” is a key word, of course.
The bill the Senate turned down Wednesday is no panacea in our era of Newtown and Aurora.
Yet I refuse to concede that we are powerless. The notion that requiring background checks for all gun sales would foil some madman’s plans is statistically unlikely, of course, but it’s hardly implausible. If we prevented even one slaughter we would have reason to celebrate.
Moreover, I don’t consider background checks, whatever the sales venue, as an infringement.
A hassle, sure.
But that word, and in fact that concept, is conspicuously absent in the Second Amendment.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala, called the defeated background checks bill “the first step in the erosion of my rights under the Second Amendment.”
This “first step” conceit is a popular one, along with its alliterative cousin, the infamous “slippery slope.”
But where Sen. Shelby seems to envision a long ladder, and presumably the kind of steep one with tall steps you only find in old buildings, I see, in expanding background checks, a barely perceptible pimple atop the minor bump that already exists when you buy a gun in a store.
That’s because nothing in my background prevents me from buying any gun I take a liking to.
(Which I might well do. I have just a few long guns now, and one revolver, so there’s ample space in the gun safe my in-laws were kind enough to buy for me.)
And I’m not unique. The vast majority of American adults — surely the figure must exceed 99 percent — are equally unrestricted from buying and owning guns.
For all of us in that group, the bill the Senate rejected this week would mean nothing but maybe another form to fill out.
You have to do that just to get your mail stopped.
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.