Last week, after the most horrific mass shooting in Oregon history and 10 days of community agony, Umpqua Community College came back in session.
This week, after 10 days of what it calls “district work period,” Congress comes back in session.
It’s not easy to see how the two ever connect.
Unbridgeable gaps, of course, are all over the gun issue: between Congress and the country, between gun safety advocates and gun rights supporters, between urban and rural values.
After every shooting – which is to say, over and over again – the nation cracks open between those who would immediately change the laws and those who insist that the shootings are unpredictable, unpreventable acts of God.
This year in Oregon, a bolstered metro-based majority in Salem enacted stronger background checks for gun purchases. This month, demonstrators in Roseburg told the president of the United States he wasn’t welcome there for supporting the same thing.
Jeff Merkley was elected to the state legislature and then the U.S. Senate from Portland, but was born in Myrtle Creek, outside Roseburg, and spent his early years in Roseburg. He still has family there, and a cousin’s great-granddaughter was among those murdered on the Umpqua campus.
“There’s definitely a cultural gap,” Merkley says. “Guns play such a big role in rural life,” for hunting, for target shooting, for protection in places where patrol cars don’t roll by regularly.
Still, Merkley thinks there’s “something we can bring the American people together on.”
Earlier this month, Merkley, Oregon’s senior senator Ron Wyden and other Democratic senators announced a renewed drive to strengthen background checks for gun purchases, to make buying guns for people banned from owning them a federal crime, and improving the database of those prevented from buying. The bill would make federal law of the tightened background checks just enacted by the Oregon legislature
Merkley points out that 80 percent to 90 percent of Americans believe in stronger background checks, and he insists there’s a way to bring this consensus to bear on Congress.
Following the Sandy Hook elementary school shootings, similar legislation failed to gather the 60 votes to force a Senate vote – and at that point Democrats had a majority.
But this time, Merkley says, there is a strategy: Led by Charles Schumer of New York, slated to be the party’s Senate leader in the next Congress, Democrats plan to refuse unanimous consent for any Senate procedure unless they get a floor vote on their gun bill.
This could bring the Senate to a dead halt, although it’s not clear how anyone would notice. Then there’s the House, currently unable to organize itself, let alone pass any actual legislation.
Still, Merkley looks at the polls on the issue, and even after being in the Senate since 2009, declares, “I don’t think you can start with the assumption that it’s impossible to make a change.”
The principle, he says, is that “When a person is disturbed or a felon, he shouldn’t have access to a gun. It should be more difficult for a disturbed person to access a gun than to access help.”
Those principles, along with background checks, seem unexceptionable and are broadly popular, two things that Merkley and the Democrats might hope to invoke in support of their bill.
But it’s also not always obvious how much the changes would help; in so many of these massacres, in Roseburg and Sandy Hook and Thurston, the guns were legally purchased by someone in the household who would still have access under virtually any proposed restrictions.
But if the bill wouldn’t solve the problem, Merkley says, it would help: “If it has the effect of stopping a handful of shootings, or even one, it’s worth it.”
Of course, you never know what you’ve prevented – and a million gun purchases stopped by the Brady Bill background checks must have extended somebody’s life.
Still, Merkley knows the argument – if the bill even gets as far as an argument – won’t be about its specifics, but about grabbing guns from law-abiding Americans. He’ll hear that, he knows, although “There has never been a single proposal that I’m aware of to take guns from owners. That’s a scare tactic from the industry. It’s a false claim.”
Does he think his position is likely to be persuasive?
Citing years trying to explain there were no such things as death panels, Merkley says, “I don’t know about persuasion.
“All I can do is tell the facts.”
And try to close up some distances.
NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 10/18/15.