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On Tuesday 45 senators — mostly Republicans, but some Democrats — made cynical political calculations by choosing to protect the NRA gun merchants over America’s children, betraying the families of Newtown, CT, and the nation in their failure to pass stronger gun laws.

It was expected that the right-wing Republicans in the Senate would reflexively vote against any common-sense gun safety measures. Only slightly more surprising was the cowardice of the four red-state Democrats who voted against expanding gun background checks — senators Max Baucus (D-MT), Mark Begich (D-AK), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), and Mark Pryor (D-AR). But at least Baucus, Heitkamp, and Pryor are keeping a low profile as they face the angry 92 percent of Americans whose demands for universal background checks went ignored.

Begich, however, spoke up with a pathetic excuse for voting against background checks. He told The New York Times that “it’s dangerous to do any type of policy in an emotional moment. Because human emotions then drive the decision. Everyone’s all worked up. That’s not enough.”

Never mind that it has been four months since Newtown. Never mind that poll after poll after poll shows a majority of Americans, including gun owners and NRA members, support universal background checks. Never mind that Vice President Joe Biden put together a task force that convened 22 meetings with law enforcement professionals and gun safety experts and collected ideas from 229 organizations, concluding that universal background checks would reduce gun violence.

And in a conference call with donors on Thursday, Begich explained that he voted yes on the rejected Grassley-Cruz alternative amendment — which was thrown together and introduced at the last minute — because it had a better chance of passing the House than Manchin-Toomey, even though Grassley-Cruz did nothing to expand background checks, and in fact included pro-gun measures such as allowing interstate firearms sales and interstate transportation of firearms that would undermine existing state laws. Grassley-Cruz also would have made it easier for mentally ill people to obtain guns.

And besides Grassley-Cruz, did Begich say anything about making an emotional policy decision when on Wednesday he voted yes on the Cornyn amendment that would have allowed “concealed carry reciprocity”? The NRA-backed bill would make it legal for someone with a gun permit from a state with weak gun laws that allows concealed carry, like Arkansas, to carry that concealed weapon across state lines to a state with tough gun laws, like New York.

That must have been a completely rational, well-researched decision.

Amazingly, although the Senate rejected the Cornyn amendment, the measure received 57 votes, which is three more votes than the Manchin-Toomey background checks bill received. Think about that —  a bill to loosen gun laws received more votes than expanding background checks. That was the Senate’s response to Newtown.

To Begich, expanding background checks is a dangerous policy driven by human emotion, but allowing any yahoo with a concealed-carry permit to walk around Times Square or Hollywood is just common sense.

At the same time that Begich was trying to justify himself, four Republican senators courageously stood up against their party and NRA pressure and voted for expanding background checks: Sens. Pat Toomey (R-PA), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Susan Collins (R-ME), and John McCain (R-AZ).

Kirk didn’t just vote yes on expanding background checks, however; he voted yes on the assault weapons and high-capacity magazine bans, and yes on a bill making gun trafficking a federal crime and strengthening penalties against straw purchases as well. All four of those amendments failed. The man from Illinois who now holds Barack Obama’s Senate seat ended up voting yes on every single common-sense gun violence prevention measure proposed by the president in response to the Newtown mass shooting.

Kirk was the only Republican to vote for banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and was one of only three Republicans to vote for the gun trafficking bill. He was also the only Republican who voted against the Cornyn amendment to allow concealed-weapon carriers to cross state lines.

His decision to vote for gun control legislation was influenced by his meeting with Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy, who told him that in Chicago, 40 percent of the guns seized in crimes are purchased without a background check. Kirk also met with the parents of the Sandy Hook victims.

Perhaps Kirk’s compassion and bipartisan spirit comes from the perspective he gained by spending a year recovering from a stroke. After returning to the Senate in January, Kirk wrote in The Washington Post about how his experience with his own mortality made him a better senator.

“I was the beneficiary of many kindnesses from colleagues on both sides of the aisle after my stroke, and those acts will forever matter more to me than any political differences,” wrote Kirk. “I don’t expect to be the same senator I was before my stroke — I hope to be a better one. I want to make my life matter by doing work that matters to others. I want to do it with the help of my friends, Republicans and Democrats, and to share the satisfaction of knowing we have honored our public trust together.”

But after Tuesday’s shameful vote, Kirk’s tune had changed regarding his colleagues.

“I am disappointed that the Senate could not come together to support a bipartisan proposal that would reduce gun violence and protect law-abiding gun owners, but American voters are the ultimate judge of today’s result,” Kirk said in a statement.

Photo: AFL-CIO via Flickr.com

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