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Published April 20 2013

Editorial: Not much courage in Senate

Profiles in courage among politicians are notable because they are rare. North Dakota’s first-term senators, both of whom enjoy deep wells of popularity, were less than courageous last week when they voted against a baby step toward sensible background checks for most gun purchases. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D, and Sen. John Hoeven, R, are on the wrong side of history on this issue.

The bipartisan bill would have closed the gaping gun show loophole, but exempted private gun sales. It was a modest step, not a perfect step. It was an expression that something meaningful, however limited, can be done. It was not a solution to all murder and mayhem caused by legal and illegal firearms. Fifty-four senators voted for the bill, but it was a procedural vote that needed 60 for the legislation to proceed.

Heitkamp said the measure would put “undue burdens on law-abiding North Dakotans.” That’s a crock. No thoughtful, “law-abiding” North Dakotan objects to a background check that can prevent guns from getting into the hands of people who are not law-abiding.

Heitkamp joined Hoeven in rolling out the mental health argument – which has become the cover of choice for the gun lobby and its servants. “The focus should be on mental health issues,” she said.

No, not the focus. Of course, appropriate mental health records should be in a database that flags mentally ill persons who should not possess firearms. But the gun industry and the politicians who bow to it are doing mentally ill persons a disservice by suggesting all who suffer from mental illness want to shoot up a movie theater. Mental illness, in all its permutations, is not that simple.

Opponents of the legislation said it would not have made children safer, citing the Newtown, Conn., massacre. Supporters never said it would. They wrote a proposal that protected the Second Amendment right of individual gun ownership, but demanded common-sense background checks for gun buyers. The strategy of the gun lobby and its handmaidens was the same as in the past, and it worked again: Misrepresent the bill’s content. Crank up the irrational fear that “they are going to take away my guns.” Divert attention from the real issue by playing the mental health card over and over again. Repeat ad nauseam the old saw that laws on the books should be enforced, when it’s been the gun lobby that has worked relentlessly to erode effectiveness of those laws.

It’s the same song that has brought the nation to a level of gun violence that would make a Third World warlord proud. It’s the same strategy that has changed responsible gun owners into fearful toadies, who, in the name of their rights, blithely do the bidding of a gun industry that operates in the name of its profits.

Heitkamp and Hoeven might be sincere in their reasons for voting against a better system for background checks. They’ve articulated their positions and stand by them. Even being sincerely wrong deserves some measure of respect.

But profiles in courage? There was precious little on display in the U.S. Senate last week.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.