August 1, 2023
The link between gun reform and voting rights
For Senator Raphael Warnock, voting rights protections and gun reform are part and parcel of the same project.
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By Chip Brownlee ● August 1, 2023
A newsletter looking at existing and emerging responses to America’s gun violence crisis.
You’ve seen the polls. One from Fox News that showed 87 percent of Americans support universal background checks. Another from CNN that found 80 percent support raising the age to buy any firearm to 21. A Johns Hopkins national survey that found 76 percent of Americans support red flag laws. A poll from NPR, PBS NewsHour, and Marist that found 60 percent of Americans say controlling gun violence is more important than protecting gun rights.
Despite the significant and consistent support for some stricter gun laws, none of those proposals have seen significant movement in Congress. If the support doesn’t translate into votes, it raises the question of whether the government — and our democratic process — is working as it should.
I sat down with Senator Raphael Warnock, a Democrat from Georgia, to get his take. Warnock, who was elected in 2020, is one of the Senate’s biggest advocates for strengthening America’s little-d democratic system and has connected voting rights to other significant issues like climate action and gun reform. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Chip Brownlee: Why is there such a big disconnect between what the public appears to want and what Congress actually does?
Raphael Warnock: Our democracy is broken. Not beyond repair. We can still do something about it, but increasingly, there’s a disconnect between what the people want and need, and what they are able to get from their government. And that’s true to the degree that the people’s voices have been squeezed out of their democracy. How is it that you have a Fox News poll reporting that 87 percent of America — Democrats and Republicans — would support something that looks like universal background checks, and yet there’s no robust conversation or movement in the Congress?
That tells you that too many of the people here are working for somebody other than the people who sent them. I would point to partisan and racial gerrymandering, the outsize influence of dark money in our politics, and the ways in which all of this contributes to the culture wars. Congress members, on the House side at least, won in districts. Those districts are drawn in such a way that they don’t reflect the will of the majority in many states. These districts are drawn in such a way that the most extreme voices have outsize influence in the process. So that’s a democracy problem.
Does that apply on the state level, in state legislatures, as well?
That’s what we saw in Tennessee, for example. We saw these bad actors in the state Legislature move to remove the elected officials who were raising issues, rather than do something about the issue that people were asking them to do something about. Why? It’s because that legislature, the Tennessee Legislature, is an extremely gerrymandered legislature. And I think they’ve been playing games for so long that they’ve convinced themselves that that’s their house and not the people’s house. That they own it. And so this is what you get.
You just led the reintroduction of the Freedom to Vote Act in July. There is a lot in that bill: combating gerrymandering, enshrining voting protections, and regulating dark money in politics. How could these reforms impact the ability to get gun legislation through?
When the people’s voices can be heard in their democracy, the people rather than the politics get centered, and if we center the people rather than the politics, we have a shot at getting the policy right. When we talk about lengthening and strengthening our democracy through providing access — a holiday for voting, early voting, weekend voting so that workers and people who have to punch in aren’t unfairly disadvantaged and don’t effectively have to pay a poll tax in order to vote — that makes a huge difference. I think those of us who want gun safety want people to vote. And I think people who like the status quo want fewer people to vote.
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Do you think that there will have to be democracy reforms before there can be more significant movement on gun reform legislation on the federal level?
I think it can’t be either or. I don’t see it as sequential. They are part and parcel of the same project. The fact that we need change requires us to work on these things together. Because part of what happens when you do that, is that you build and you strengthen the coalitions that are necessary for change. So there are people who care about the gun safety issue, who also care about voting rights, but are maybe more or less involved in one of these issues or the other.
I think when you bring together people — people focused on democracy and voting rights, people who are interested in gun safety, people who are interested in the existential threat of climate change, and people who are disconcerted that we’re seeing a Supreme Court literally rolling back rights — then you have the kind of coalitions that have always been necessary for change in this country.
Congress is not the only place where decisions are made that affect guns and violence in America. There’s the courts, the highest of which delivered a massive blow to proponents of stricter gun laws with its Bruen decision last year. Is that something you’re worried about, and do you think reforms to the Supreme Court should fall under democracy reforms?
The Supreme Court absolutely is an issue. And we’re seeing that not only are members buddies with billionaires — these are activists that they’re palling around with, who have business before the court. That’s a corruption issue. I think Congress has to leave all options on the table as a co-equal branch of government for addressing it. If the Supreme Court will not regulate itself, then I think Congress owes it to the American people to see how we can help them.
Does that mean an ethics code for the Supreme Court?
That’s exactly what I’m talking about. If they won’t do it themselves, and there’s no indication that they intend to, then Congress needs to look at every tool we have to ensure that the American people can have faith in their judiciary.
What about term limits or the composition of the court?
I think that we have a very specific issue on the table right now with respect to ethics reform. And I’m focused right now on how we’d like to do it.
Do you think that there are other things Congress can do on guns in the near term, if not universal background checks and big-name legislation like that?
I look at all of these issues in a comprehensive way. I think while we work on gun violence, we also have to work on mental health. We also have to work on creating opportunities for people and putting resources into not only what we want to stop, but building the kind of community we want to have. Good jobs, access to good quality education, recreational spaces for young people. No matter where they live and what ZIP code they’re in, are there places where they can have access to recreational facilities, cultural opportunities that expand their mind, expand their imagination? I think all those are part of the work.
So in a real sense, when I’m introducing legislation to get mental health providers in our schools, I’m working on gun violence. Even when you see me put forward, as I’ve done recently in the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) reauthorization, a workforce development bill so that kids, regardless of their ZIP code, have access to become a pilot or an aviation mechanic — to be a part of the future workforce, to have hope in communities where kids literally don’t think they will see age 20 — I’m working on gun violence.
News You Can Use
New York Unveils $485 Million Plan to Fight Gun Violence: New York City Mayor Eric Adams and New York Governor Kathy Hochul on Monday announced plans to invest millions in expanding job training programs for young people, improving public spaces, providing affordable housing, and bolstering mental health care. The investment is the result of A Blueprint for Community Safety, a community-driven report by NYC’s Gun Violence Prevention Task Force.
Richmond Mayor Calls on Virginia to Use State Budget for Violence Prevention: As budget negotiations continue in the state, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney called on Virginia lawmakers to allocate $30 million for violence prevention programs like street outreach and hospital-based violence intervention.
Addressing Baltimore Teens’ Belief They ‘Need’ a Gun Is at the Heart of New Efforts To Reduce Youth Violence: Growing evidence suggests that many young people who carry firearms do so because they’re afraid and need them for protection. In Baltimore, which has recorded a higher rate of teen homicides this year than any in the last decade, community organizations are working to address the reasons why teens say they need guns.
Ohioans Overwhelmingly Support Gun Safety Measures: A new USA TODAY Network/Suffolk University survey shows that more than 90 percent of Ohioans want mandatory background checks, and 88 percent want mandatory training for concealed carry permits.
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