04/18/2013 06:17 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2013

Minority Rule and What We Can Do About It

Yesterday the United States Senate failed to pass the Manchin-Toomey amendment to the Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act, a first-stab attempt at addressing our national gun violence pandemic. It called for extending criminal background checks to all commercial gun purchases, namely those at gun shows and on the Internet, that are not currently subject to such checks. The proposal, co-sponsored by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), both staunch supporters of gun rights with "A" ratings from the NRA, no less, would not have banned assault weapons, limited high-capacity magazines or even required background checks to be conducted when guns are transferred in private sales, such as between friends and family members. In fact, it would have facilitated easier interstate gun sales, shielded gun vendors from lawsuits if a weapon they sold was used in a crime, allowed sportsmen to bring guns across state lines, permitted members of the military to buy guns in their home states and actually subjected government officials who tried to create a gun registry to 15 years in jail. Hardly draconian gun control.

The background checks proposed in Manchin-Toomey, supported by over 90 percent of the American people, could not possibly have been more modest and uncontroversial. So why couldn't this proposal even pass the Democrat-controlled Senate? Contrary to what you were taught in high school civics class, we're living under minority rule.

There are a few culprits, which I'll address in turn:

1) The Filibuster

The Manchin-Toomey plan failed despite the fact that there were 55 senators in favor and 45 opposed. Why? Senate rules require that at least 60 senators must vote for "cloture" to end debate before most substantive votes can take place. A group of 40 or more senators who oppose a bill or nomination for which there is majority support can filibuster, or simply vote against ending debate. In the interest of time, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid secured unanimous consent to instead require 60 votes to adopt each of the nine proposed amendments to the gun bill, rather than holding lengthy procedural votes to end debate on each individual amendment. Reid could have asked senators to agree to set the bar at 51 votes (a simple majority), in which case the background checks amendment would have passed easily. However, then there was the possibility of amendments passing that would have run contrary to the goal of reducing gun violence in our society, effectively destroying the entire Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act.

The Democrats could change the Senate rules to reduce the number of senators needed to vote for cloture or end the filibuster altogether. However, given that Democrats have been the minority in the Senate in the past and will not have a majority forever, there has been reluctance to abandon or weaken this rule that protects the minority party in the chamber. However, the flip side of this is that, as we saw yesterday, a minority of senators can halt just about anything, leading to gridlock and dysfunction.

2) The Structure of the Senate

Given that four Republicans supported the Manchin-Toomey proposal, it would have passed if every Democrat had voted "yea." However, three Democrats up for reelection next year -- Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota -- as well as Mark Pryor of Arkansas, opposed the bill. The founding fathers purposely designed the Senate to give each state equal representation, as opposed to the House, where each state's representation is determined by its population. However, in this case, the four Democratic senators who voted against Manchin-Toomey represent sparsely populated states with a combined population of 5,385,349. So the amendment was effectively at the mercy of four senators representing the equivalent of 27.5 percent of the population of the state of New York or 1.72 percent of the U.S. population.

3) Money in Politics

Last year the American gun industry made an estimated $11.7 billion in sales, with profits of $993 million. While statistics on the number of gun sales not subject to background checks are imperfect, thanks to the 1996 law preventing the federal government from conducting research on violence, officials estimate that a whopping 40 percent of gun sales occur without checks. Expanding background checks would make gun sales less seamless and prevent the sale of guns to criminals, which the gun industry evidently fears would hurt its bottom line. For this reason the gun industry enlisted groups like the NRA, which the Violence Policy Center's Josh Sugarmann calls "a virtual subsidiary of the gun industry," to stop the background checks proposal and anything else that may affect its bottom line. Unsurprisingly, the NRA's proposal to reduce violence calls for more armed guards in public places and more laypeople (like teachers) to carry guns -- in other words, things that would sell more guns and further enrich the gun industry.

How does the NRA work its course? In the last election cycle the NRA spent over $25 million on ads, lobbying and campaign contributions. The organization grades and endorses candidates and mobilizes voters for candidates it supports, and against candidates it opposes. Of course, the NRA determines who and what it considers to be pro-gun and anti-gun, and its definition can be very different from what a reasonable person might conclude. In a letter to senators, NRA Executive Director Chris Cox announced the he "unequivocally opposed" Manchin and Toomey's "misguided" plan to expand background checks, stating that it "would unfairly infringe upon the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding gun owners." Cox threatened senators, warning them that a vote for Manchin-Toomey, which he termed an "anti-gun amendmen[t]," "would be considered in NRA's future candidate evaluations." Republican candidates and Democrats in conservative-leaning states fear bad grades from the NRA and the wrath of the organization that comes with not keeping in lockstep. Thus we can understand why four Democrats and all but four Republicans voted against this straightforward, common-sense plan to make sure that guns aren't sold to felons.

So what can we do?

It is a sad day when the U.S. Senate, "the world's greatest deliberative body," cannot even make a minor dent in our gun problem that kills 10 times the number of people who died on 9/11 every single year. How is it that we can spend trillions of dollars to help other countries build democracies and combat crime when our own Senate cannot pass a proposal that the majority of its members and over 90 percent of the American people support, all because it has hijacked by procedural dysfunction and what essentially amounts to bribery and blackmail by the gun lobby?

The future of the filibuster is in Sen. Harry Reid's hands, but all of us can shape who gets the privilege of representing us in Congress. As Gabby Giffords wrote in The New York Times, "if we cannot make our communities safer with the Congress we have now, we will use every means available to make sure we have a different Congress." The 2014 midterm elections are fast approaching, and those of us who care about public safety can make our voices heard and open up our wallets to support candidates who back sensible gun laws. Fortunately, we have people on our side like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is happy to put his money where is mouth is to help counteract the NRA. Already this year, Mayor Bloomberg spent $2.2 million to help Robin Kelly, a supporter of gun control legislation, win Jesse Jackson Jr.'s former seat in Illinois, and he committed another $12 million for a national ad campaign. Mayors Against Illegal Guns also announced that it will be issuing its own grades of elected officials, who should be aware, as Mayor Bloomberg put it, that "the NRA is not the only one scoring them."

It is unfortunate that the Supreme Court struck down limits on political spending by corporations and organizations in Citizens United. However, as long as this remains the law of the land, there is no reason that the majority of Americans who support common-sense gun laws cannot outraise and outspend the gun industry and make our senators and congresspeople quake in their boots before casting a vote that leaves all of us vulnerable.

The tyranny of the minority is not inevitable; we can and we must reclaim our democracy. As we see with guns, it is a matter of life or death.