It’s been overshadowed by the Dobbs decision, but on Saturday the President signed into law a gun safety law that’s more than a compromise. Fifteen Republican Senators crossed the aisle to vote in favor of a package that closed long-standing holes in the laws and bridged several broad cracks that offenders fell through with regularity. It’s the first intelligent and targeted measure of this nature we’ve seen in years, and a sign that Congress can come together across party lines and act — at least, it can do so when it becomes evident that the general population demands it.
The substantive portions of the law are fairly well known: It closes loopholes in laws against “straw man” purchases, forces some part-time dealers to register and thus comply with federal reporting laws, expands and funds access to background checks, opens juvenile records where needed, and provides grant money for state “Red Flag” laws as well as community policing and mental health programs. It may actually be the first effective measure directed at school shootings on the federal level. By interesting coincidence, it employs similar language to that used by Justice Thomas in his consenting opinion to Dobbs: that the right to due process doesn’t guarantee that the government can’t intervene, but rather the opposite.
The history of S.2938, which began as an unremarkable effort to name a courthouse after Judge Hackett, who died last April, is a curious one, and typical of the pettiness that surrounds much of Congress. It was initially sponsored by Marco Rubio, who later voted against its final form as a gun bill. When initially sent from the Senate to the House, it was returned with the amendment that a prominent retired California congresswoman would have to get a post office named for her in exchange — rather an offensive snub, considering the courtesies that usually surround such commemorations. Someone apparently disliked either Rubio or Hackett enough to insert a “poison pill” designed to kill the bill.
Most meaningful legislation is required to begin in the House rather than the Senate, but when fast action demands a Senate compromise, they often resurrect other, dead bills of this sort as vehicles for parliamentary tricks to evade the law. What’s unusual is that both the courthouse and the post office stayed in the final text; for the most part, they remove all the old words and start again fresh. This prevented a revolution from progressives in the House, who were reportedly prepared to sabotage the compromise by adding other “poison pill” amendments; since the bill had already passed that stage, however, the Speaker was able to keep her fellow Democrats in line.
So if you should happen to pass by either the Joseph Woodrow Hatchett United States Courthouse and Federal Building in Tallahassee or the Lynn C. Woolsey Post Office Building in Petaluma, and a small child should ask you about the people who got a building named for them, you can now explain how it came to be that the Democrats bitterly resisted honoring the first Black man elected to the Florida Supreme Court, and then how fifteen Senate Republicans voted to forever enshrine in stucco the name of 2012’s Most Liberal Member of Congress.
We live in a very strange country.
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