Several years ago after the Newtown massacre, when Adam Lanza took his rage out on a classroom defenseless students and teachers, I wrote a piece castigating a number of Democratic Senators who dug their heads into the sand and refused to close basic background check loopholes.
These senators were Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska, and perhaps the worst of the worst, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. Had they supported basic reform supported by 90% of Americans (and even the overwhelming supported of NRA members), it would have been harder for the next maniac to take his rage out upon the innocent. As the Minority Leader, Harry Reid was forced to vote "no" because of a quirky senate rule which voting no would allow him to bring up the issue again at a future date. Had Baucus Begich and Heitkamp supported the bill, then Reid would have been the 60th vote. It would have cleared cloture.
Back then, West Virginia conservative Democrat Joe Manchin teamed up with Pat Toomey, a conservative Republican from neighboring Pennsylvania to author bipartisan legislation that would close some basic loopholes on gun sales. As a member of the NRA, Machin took on the most powerful gun manufacturer's lobby in the nation. Sadly it fell short of the needed 60 votes to clear the cloture issue and it died on the floor of the Senate. He paid a steep price as the NRA has targeted one of their own with a series of vicious ads and direct mails campaigns.
In what can only be called "total courage," US Senator Chris Murphy stood in the well of the Senate and filibustered for over 15 hours until he received a promise from the Republican Senate leadership that there would be a vote. There were two bills on the table. The first would have barred gun sales to anyone who has been on a terrorist watch list in the previous five years. The second would have tightened a background check system to cover the so-called gun show loophole and all internet gun sales, which essentially was a reprise of the Machin-Toomey effort from years past.
Both failed to get the needed 60 votes. The background check legislation came up 4 votes short with 56 votes while the legislation that would bar those on the terrorist watch list for the past 5 years only collected 53 votes.
Last time I wrote about this, I heavily criticized Max Baucus, Mark Begich, and Heidi Heitkamp. In the case of Baucus of Montana, he had already privately decided to retire from the Senate, where he had served since 1976. At that point, Baucus could have simply voted his conscience without worrying about any political blowback. As for Begich, he went down in flames in Alaska in 2014 and voting against the measure certainly did not save his carcass. That left Heidi Heitkamp, who came up with a series of sorry excuses of why she could not vote for the legislation.
This time, three Democratic Senators failed to support it, Joe Machin, Jon Tester, and once again the odious Heidi Heitkamp. I give Joe Machin the benefit of the doubt. He carried the legislation the last time and is up for reelection this year in gun-crazy West Virginia. Jon Tester, on the other hand, is in his second term and will not be up for reelection until 2018. He has no excuse, considering that he supported the Manchin-Toomey Bill after Newtown.
But I have saved my bile for North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp. When she ran to succeed Democrat Kent Conrad in 2012, she won a razor thin vote against a Republican challenger.
As a Californian, it seemed that every other fundraising letter I received was to support Heidi Heitkamp's campaign. It was imperative to retain a Democratic Senate seat in North Dakota, which historically votes for Republicans in presidential elections. Heidi Heitkamp appeared to be a very interesting candidate after serving as Attorney General with two landslide victories before losing a gubernatorial race in 2000.
However serving in the Senate should come with a little courage and sadly it is something that Heidi Heitkamp lacks by the gallon. In 2013, she wrote a terribly defensive statement explaining her decision-making process.
Here is what she wrote.
"I've been adamant from the very beginning of this conversation that the focus should be on mental health issues, full and accurate reporting into the NICS database and ensuring that we are prosecuting criminals in possession of or trying to possess firearms. This conversation should be about what is in people's minds, not about what is in their hands. I commend Senators Manchin and Toomey for working so hard to bring a serious bill to the floor. However, in its current form I do not see a path for my support. I've thought long and hard about this, I've taken the tough meetings, and I've heard overwhelmingly from the people of North Dakota; and at the end of the day my duty is to listen to and represent the people of North Dakota."
However, 90% of North Dakotan voters supported tightening of the loopholes back then but Heitkamp had to search for ways to knock it down. Today I fail to believe that there is a majority of North Dakota voters who are in favor of easy access for members of ISIS "lone wolves" to buy an AR-15 to blow away more school children, people at a club, or diners at a restaurant. This is an easy vote to defend--if you think about it.
However, at the end of the day, Senator Heitkamp proved she was so full of crap that she should've come with her own septic tank.
Political figures often need "cover" to inspire political courage or perhaps hide from a voter backlash. Retired Astronaut Mark Kelly who co-founded Americans for Responsible Solutions with his wife, former Congressman Gabrielle Giffords who was shot in the head during a constituent meeting in Tucson, has organized a number of military leaders to talk about getting battlefield weapon off of American streets. With Kelly and Giffords, members of the military Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus have joined the fight to curtail the access of battlefield weapons. Both were commanding generals in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are people who have seen the personnel damage caused by the battlefield weapons in theaters of battle
Both have said that there is no place for battlefield weapons on American streets.
If you cannot find political cover cowering behind the top generals of the past decade, then it is perhaps time for others to do your job.
Lyndon Johnson used to tell Senators during tough votes for Civil Rights during the 1960's that he didn't need their help for the easy votes--he needed them for the toughest of votes. If they lacked the courage, he offered them a choice--his way or the highway and fear of LBJ's wrath often trumped any fear of what the voters back home might respond.
Can somebody tell me how a member of ISIS can fill up his trunk with a cornucopia of battlefield weapons? Maybe Senator Heitkamp simply does not care.
Perhaps it's time for Heidi Heitkamp to grow some courage, if that is even possible at this juncture. If she can't, perhaps it time to let somebody else do the job.