Of all the senators who attempted Wednesday to rally support for the doomed Manchin-Toomey background check amendment, Connecticut's Democratic freshman representative, Chris Murphy, probably faced the greatest temptation to borrow the moral authority of the Newtown families. They are his constituents and many were present in the chamber.
He's young – the youngest sitting senator, actually – and an early Obama supporter, given to occasional bouts of (understandably) overwrought emotional rhetoric. During his very first floor speech as a senator last week, which itself took on gun legislation, he read the names of the Newtown victims – and some of the 3,000 other victims of gun violence since 14 December – into the congressional record.
Murphy's also been a vocal, unusually sharp critic of the National Rifle Association. He described their response to the the Newtown tragedy – the "National School Shield" Program – as "unhinged", "revolting", and "tone deaf", declaring himself "flabbergasted" by the group's press conference and calling out the program for what it was: a bald ploy for further political power.
"This was a chance for the country to come together. The NRA made the decision to gain membership by ginning up fear and becoming even more radical."
But on Wednesday, Murphy eschewed the inflammatory, easy route of shaming gun rights extremists (though I have no qualms about that path myself). Maybe because the battle was already lost, his speech had a tone of exasperated regret, tinged with earnest bewilderment. He was forthright about what a vote against universal background checks means:
"You are basically saying you are OK with more criminals getting guns."
(This sentiment has been echoed by the amendment's Democratic co-author, Joe Manchin.) Murphy then took a step back from his focus on the NRA as the bill's primary antagonist and articulated the question so many of us have: 90% of Americans support the kind of background checks laid out in the Manchin-Toomey legislation. Why isn't it passing? Sure, he said, it's tempting to lay blame entirely on the NRA:
"For a while, I could only explain opposition to near-universal background checks through the power of the gun lobby because I just thought that people must know in their heart that a simple, easy thing to do is to make sure that criminals don't own guns, and so there must be some external pressure that's forcing people to do the wrong thing."
But, he continued:
"The longer that I've spent in this place, the more I'm convinced that there are people who actually do believe that we should just go back to the days of the wild, wild west, that we should usher in a new era of gun control Darwinism in which the good guys have guns, the bad guys have guns, and we just hope that the good guys shoot the bad guys. The gun lobby, frankly, tells us this. We should probably listen to them."
Murphy is being either disingenuous or overly self-effacing with that crack about "the longer I've spent in this place": he's been in the Senate for four months. If anything, he brings the clarity of a newcomer to the debate and I think he's right: we can't explain the failure of Congress to enact meaningful gun legislation by simply pointing to the economic power of the NRA.
There's something just as seductive about their narrative. We need to listen to that narrative if we have any hope of effectively untangling it.
Money can buy votes but it can't buy an explanation for those vote. The senators voting "no" today have to believe that there is a way of talking about "gun rights" as though it isn't an embarrassing anachronism, a misreading of the constitution as grievously damaging to the country as the similarly "strict constitutionalist" notion that brought us the "separate but equal" decision in Plessy v Ferguson, the 1896 landmark supreme court decision upholding segregation.
If anything, thinking of the NRA – and the political power of gun rights activists as a whole – as the sole architect of the failure of the background check amendment gives us exactly the kind of convenient, one-dimensional "good guy v bad guy" framework that the NRA wants to superimpose on every decision about gun legislation. The fact is that if gun violence was a matter of keeping guns away from "bad guys", we could probably have some success at it.
When gun rights advocates tell us that the real problem isn't guns, but a culture of violence, they are half-right – or maybe, just have it backwards. The problem is guns in a culture of violence … or at least, in a culture that still believes that violence can be addressed with violence.
Since Newtown, I have re-examined my own feelings about guns and the second amendment. I grew up in Nebraska; my family is from Texas. I learned to shoot a rifle in grade school, and took target-shooting classes at summer camp. I don't know a lot about guns beyond that – just enough to know how much fun, and how dangerous, they are.
As far as the second amendment is concerned, it's hard to have any affinity for Texas and Texans without some belief in the idea that the federal government may at some point turn against you. I also read a lot of apocalyptic science fiction: I use the specter of the zombie plague as motivation when I don't want to go to the gym. All that is to say, I am sympathetic to the notion that I may need to handle a gun some day. Just as I know I may also need to know how to distill my own urine for drinking water.
In light of all the gun violence we have seen in recent months, I have come to believe that in the very worst scenario – the US becoming a dystopian dictatorship with food riots, total censorship, zombies and Sarah Palin – it is the latter that has a better chance of saving my life and less likelihood of getting me killed. Seriously, if the lights go out, and we return to a state of nature, I want to be able to band together with allies, not succumb myself to paranoia and violence. I also think I could take a zombie out with an ax better than with a gun. (The available zombie eradication literature suggests this is the preferred method.)
As for the non-zombie dystopian possible future: I can imagine an armed resistance against tyranny, I like to think I would want to be a part of it. I am not sure that guns, precisely, would be the most effective method of disruption. There is also always the danger that using violence to overthrow an unjust ruler makes it more difficult to establish which side is really on the side of justice.
The founders were probably not thinking about zombies when they fashioned the second amendment; they had a real and legitimate fear about the threat of tyranny to their fledgling experiment in democracy. Two centuries on, that democracy has proved remarkably enduring, stable and resilient; and citizens have not had to take up arms against arbitrary authority to preserve it. Can democracy ever, in fact, flourish from the barrel of a gun?
There is a horrible symmetry to the gun legislation debate taking place in the Senate under the pall cast by the Boston Marathon bombings. As Patton Oswalt's viral essay argued, the lesson we must – if we are to retain our dignity and humanity – take away from that tragedy is that people banded together can do great things in the face of evil. The good guys do always win. And the good guys do not need guns to do so.
But, as Murphy acknowledged on the floor of the Senate, we have trouble believing that. Or at least, our elected representatives do.