‘This is about us begging for our lives’: the Great American Gun Debate Redux
The politics surrounding the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas high school shooting – which, by the way, is the 30th mass shooting in the US this year, according to Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks gun violence in the country – has resolved into the predictable going-nowhere debate: Democrats and victims are calling for tighter gun regulation, and Republicans are either silent, offering ‘thoughts and prayers,’ claiming mental health as the real culprit (while, by the way, working to cut federal funding for mental healthcare), or blaming the FBI for missing the warning signs (which is real) – doing everything, in other words, to avoid talking about the guns themselves.
One thing that few people are talking about is the Dickey Amendment, a little-known rule in effect since 1996 which has effectively banned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from researching the links between mental health and gun violence.
The amendment, tucked into the massive 1996 spending bill by Jay Dickey, at the time a Republican representative from Arkansas, states that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” As Sarah Zhang notes at the Atlantic, the amendment “did not explicitly forbid research into gun-related deaths, just advocacy. But the Congress also lowered the CDC’s budget by the exact amount it spent on such research.” The National Rifle Association (NRA), as you might have guessed, lobbied hard for the amendment.
Smart read: This column from the LA Times’ Michael Hiltzik on all the money the NRA has spent on “its decades-long assault on rational American firearms policy.”
Dickey himself, who passed away last April, flipped on the issue, petitioning Congress in 2016 to remove the rule, but with Republicans in control – and so many of them receiving funding from the NRA – the amendment has remained, and thanks to this our understanding of gun violence and its links to mental health has not changed much in the decades since the rule went into effect.
Without research underpinning the conversation, the debate over gun regulation has been fueled primarily by opinion, ideology, lobbyists and cash, and most horrifyingly, by mass shooting events and dead bodies. Removing or altering the Dickey amendment would eliminate a barrier to such research, and lead to policy proposals grounded in research and fact. And hopefully save lives.
There is a (very) slim chance that Congress could act this year: the details of the budget agreed to a few weeks ago are still being hammered out, and President Trump has claimed on multiple occasions that he wants to do something about mental health (despite lots of evidence to the contrary). At least one prominent Republican legislator, too, is rethinking the issue: Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), a staunch Second Amendment guy, claimed on Thursday the policy should be reexamined. However, as Roll Call reports, Republicans aren’t at the moment planning on eliminating or altering the amendment.
Immigration: four up, four down
A series of immigration proposals all failed to collect enough votes to pass the Senate Thursday, which likely ends the immigration debate for the foreseeable future and leaves the nearly 800,000 DACA recipients, among the estimated 1.8 million young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers, in limbo just weeks before the program is set to end.
President Trump’s proposal, advanced by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and widely seen as far too restrictive, failed on a 39-60 vote. That bill would have dramatically curbed legal immigration, which, as Jeff Stein and Andrew Van Dam note at the Washington Post, “would delay the date that white Americans become a minority of the population by as few as one or as many as five additional years.” Despite the bill’s failure, the fact it was even seriously considered shows just how much the conversation around immigration has shifted since Trump took office. James Hohmann at the Daily 202 writes:
Elected Republicans used to insist adamantly that they were not anti-immigration but anti-illegal immigration. That’s changed. At the behest of Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Republicans are rallying around the idea of dramatic reductions in legal immigration. Two years ago, this was an extreme idea that most GOP senators would have quickly distanced themselves from. Now it’s considered mainstream and the centerpiece of the bill that McConnell has rallied his members behind.
The White House’s active effort to push Grassley’s bill effectively doomed the proposal from the self-dubbed “Common Sense Caucus,” a group of bipartisan senators led in the immigration effort by Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) and Sen. Angus King (I-VT). That plan, which was immediately and relentlessly attacked by Trump and co., would have fulfilled two of Trump’s goals: a path to citizenship for the estimated 1.8 million Dreamers and $25 billion for border security. It also would have “restrict[ed] the parents of Dreamers from using their children’s new citizenship to apply for citizenship themselves.” But the plan did not go far enough, in Trump’s view, in curbing legal immigration – in particular, it did not eliminate what Republicans call chain migration or diversity lotteries.
The Rounds-King bill had the best opportunity of passing, but the White House and Senate leadership worked to discourage members against voting for it: Trump took to Twitter to blast it, and the Department of Homeland Security released what’s essentially a political ad attacking it. McConnell, meanwhile, worked more quietly to dissuade his members from voting for it. The public broadsides “made it difficult for some [Republicans] to try to publicly support anything,” one GOP senator told Politico. The bill failed, 54-45.
Two other bills, one a ‘skinny’ bipartisan bill to protect Dreamers, the other a Republican effort to punish sanctuary cities, failed as well.
Beyond Trump’s subterfuge, there are likely two reasons there’s still no deal on DACA, despite widespread public support for Dreamers: (1) Immigration hawks from deep-red states, like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), don’t feel the pressure that other lawmakers do to make a deal, and are wielding that as leverage, and (2) with two court injunctions against the March 5th rescinding of DACA, legislators aren’t feeling quite enough pressure to compel them to negotiate in good faith.
There’s not a whole lot anybody can do about (1), but there are serious signs that, regarding (2), the Supreme Court is considering taking up the Trump administration’s complaint against the first court injunction, issued way back on January 9th (doesn’t this feel like a lifetime ago?) by US District Judge William Alsup. The decision could come as early as Tuesday.
This week in Russia
As on so many other weeks during the one-plus-year tenure of President Donald Trump, there was a significant Friday news dump that deflected public attention away from a newly-burgeoning conversation about gun legislation – which was frankly already resolving into the same old demoralizing argument, anyway, see above. This week, it was the Russia investigation: Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians and 3 Russian companies, “accusing them,” as the Los Angeles Times reports, “of using stolen identities, fake campaign events and hundreds of social media accounts while spending millions of rubles to interfere in the 2016 presidential election in a secret effort to aid the Trump campaign.”
This is significant news, because it finally kills a narrative that Trump had been floating since winning the election, that the Special Counsel investigation is a “witch hunt,” and it’s forced at least one high-profile White House official, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, to acknowledge Russia’s meddling role as “incontrovertible.”
The indictment came just days after top US intelligence officials testified about the Russian threat to the 2018 midterm elections at an open Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. Though they were in vigorous agreement that there was a serious threat, they did not appear to have a comprehensive plan to counter it. House Democrats released a proposal the next day that would provide $1 billion in funding for states to upgrade their election systems, but it’s unlikely that’ll get much play.
In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray muddied the White House timeline on the Rob Porter scandal, telling committee members that the FBI had completed its investigation of Porter in July 2017, more than six months before Porter “was forced to resign over allegations of domestic violence from two ex-wives.”
- White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed later in the day that the FBI investigation was just the first step in the process: the White House personnel security office, which provides clearances, was still in the midst of its own investigation when Porter resigned.
- On Wednesday President Trump delivered a short statement to reporters, asserting that he is “totally opposed to domestic violence of any kind.”
In yet another indication of just how much Trump has done to muddy the waters around politics and business, his inaugural committee paid $26 million to an event planning firm formed by Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, an advisor to first lady Melania Trump, just six weeks before the inauguration.
The White House released its budget proposal on Monday, a “messaging document” that has no chance of being enacted, but which is nevertheless useful as an indicator of Trump’s priorities.
- From the New York Times: “President Trump sent Congress a $4.4 trillion budget proposal on Monday outlining steep cuts to domestic programs, large increases in military spending and a ballooning federal deficit that illustrates how far Republicans have strayed from their longtime embrace of balanced budgets.”
As with other Cabinet members, Trump’s Secretary of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin, is embroiled in a controversy over his traveling habits.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) clashed with Attorney General Jeff Sessions over criminal sentencing reform, and it wasn’t pretty.