Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Busting the Senate

In this very moment as I type, in Washington DC the country stands on the precipice of making history. In this moment, Democratic Senators, specifically the Senator of Connecticut, home of the Newtown school massacre, have taken the US Congress hostage in what is currently clocked at a 12+ hour filibuster, a dramatic and divisive effort to move the hands of the nation's lawmakers to draw more stringent gun control laws. For those unaware, Congress opens sessions each morning and closes them each evening, but these sessions cannot be closed if a senator is holding the floor and actively addressing the Senate. No one can force the senator holding the floor to give it up, and if the senator continues to talk, the session cannot close. The other senators cannot leave, Congress cannot close for the evening, and they can continue long into the night and into the next day if they choose. These filibusters are effective tactics to motivate action in the Senate. Following the devastating massacre that took place Sunday morning at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, as the country and the world heaved another exasperated sigh at another mass shooting in the US, people have demanded a change. For once, our representatives have heard us.

Gun control laws have been lax as gun proponents and powerful NRA members have blocked multiple attempts to create stricter laws and policies in regards to gun purchasing and possession, and limitations on types of firearms permitted. Falling victim to the slippery slope mentality, fear of losing their guns completely eliminated any possibility of negotiation on this forefront. Now the NRA has not always been the picture of tact and grace when dealing with their adversaries and victims of gun violence. In spite of the multiple shootings that had taken place, the NRA has even at times been callous in their swift response to secure gun support. Following the Columbine shootings, the NRA had a scheduled gun show in Denver that they refused to cancel, in case gun support waned in the face of innocent children being shot to death. Then just months after Columbine, when a six year old child took a gun to school in Flint, Michigan and shot another six year old, the NRA was there too, ready to represent as the community mourned another senseless act of violence.

But in this discussion, senators are finally breaching above the obstacle in this conversation and clarifying once and for all that guns will remain protected for the responsible, for the mentally healthy, for the upstanding citizens and residents of this country who are trying to live a decent and safe life above and beyond terror. However, we will not allow guns to fall into the hands of those who will do grave harm to innocent people around them. We will not stand for another mass shooting in this country.

I don't particularly expect drastic changes in this single filibuster. As a nation we work in baby steps before we can nudge the opposition in the direction we wish to fall. And what is becoming evident in these ongoing discussions is that the senators are presenting taking on the safer issues and tip-toeing around the more significant and sensitive ones. The broader suggestion that has currently taken the floor is the prohibition of "individuals of concern" or people on the FBI's watch list from purchasing weapons, and prohibiting any form of gun sales without background checks. While this is a good start to achieving change, it is certainly not enough; the senators are grazing on issues that have almost unanimously been decided and supported by the American people, therefore evade any significant risk in standing up in Congress and voicing their concerns. In the hours they've been on the air, not one senator that I have seen has mentioned the ban of assault rifles or high capacity magazines because this a more delicate subject, one that would spark those slippery slope concerns from gun proponents "well if you're going to take this type of gun how do I know you won't take my other guns?" While I commend the senators for taking action, they are also taking credit for a debate that is likely already won amongst the people and the other senators in the building. Edit: Senator of Connecticut finally acknowledged these issues in the 14th hour but wishes to focus on the safe issues mentioned above to start the movement.

As we move forward it will take more time and more initiatives to accomplish what we truly need to make this nation safe again. The senate has discussed but has not proposed changes to policies regarding individuals with mental health issues, which, as I cited in my LGBT blog, needs significant revisions in order to prevent guns from falling into the hands of the mentally ill; a five year waiting period for a released psychiatric patient does not imply sudden mental stability. Some senators have argued that individual states are making their own laws to handle gun control and this should be sufficient, but it is not. The state legislative process involved and the opposition from the NRA and gun proponents is too long and too strong for many states to achieve this level of protection on their own. They need the power of the federal government behind them to expedite and enforce this movement, and the country deserves the umbrella of federal protection in the face of nation-wide and constant tragedies. But, we cannot deny that this is one giant leap in the right direction.

As the discussions go on and we enter our 13th hour, more and more senators are fueling the filibuster with heart-wrenching stories of the realities we have faced in the last few decades regarding gun violence. The woman above, though I did not catch which state she represented, recounting the mass shootings that have occurred since 2007 and listed the locations, number of fatalities, and numbers of the wounded. My heart ached and I shook my head in disbelief at all the recorded massacres that have been buried in the shadows of the past, buried beneath the headlines of the latest shootings, only the bloodiest worthy of remembrance. So many lives, so many cut short in tragedies, which, for many, could have been prevented with stricter gun laws.

What I do love about this discussion is a point easily recognized around the world and in some places in America, but one in danger of being glossed over: this was not just an act of terrorism. Yes, he claimed affiliation with ISIS, but as more information comes out, this was an act of hate and aggression towards a particular group of people: the LGBTQ community. And it happened specifically during our own month of celebration, our anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. This was not just terrorism, this was a terrorist act embedded in a hate crime, the first of its kind in our sad, sordid history of human violence. And some amazing senators will not let you forget it. They have worked tirelessly in their speeches to remind us that this was a hate crime, an attack on people who loved whom they chose, who wanted to be who they are, and live life as they were made to. Hundreds and thousands of demonstrators around the world held vigil for those who passed, but they did it waving the rainbow flag, not the American flag. This was not just an attack on American soil, on American freedom and lives, this was an attack on the gay community. After everything we have endured, after the hate, the discrimination, the struggles we have absorbed, we must find room in our lives to comprehend one more tragedy and one more devastating fact: that we are not yet safe in this world before us.

But in watching the international response, I find hope. The world I grew up in rallied against any type of gay rights; they shamed us, they beat us, they even murdered us, as some from my generation will recall the brutal deaths of Matthew Shepard and Brandon Teena. I am still shocked and overwhelmed when I see thousands standing in the streets of London, praying outside vigils in India, holding their own pride parades with their mothers in Asia, and waving their rainbow flags in solidarity. I was still stunned when I saw the hundreds of straight allies who answered the call for blood donations when gay men could not donate. In spite of the message this one man attempted to send, I can see that we have the love and support of millions more, and we can survive and thrive through these final dark hours before the rainbow shines through this storm. But we can't do it alone.

It is currently 2 am in Washington now, and they are still fighting. Filibuster on...14 hours and counting.

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