Will Mass Shootings Change Manchin’s Mind on Filibuster?

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In 2010, when Joe Manchin first ran for the U.S. Senate in West Virginia, his campaign ran an ad showing him loading and shooting a rifle while trumpeting his endorsement by the National Rifle Association. So it took some real courage two years later when, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that killed 20 children and six adults, Manchin became one of the primary sponsors of a bill requiring universal background checks. (Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania was the other key sponsor.)

Manchin, of course, is a Democrat representing a very red state — just a month before the Sandy Hook massacre, 62% of the electorate voted for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama. The NRA quickly accused him of betraying his constituents and failing to defend the Second Amendment. But Manchin didn’t flinch; instead he hit back at the NRA, saying that it was the gun lobby that was betraying legitimate gun owners like him and other West Virginians who wanted to ensure that firearms didn’t wind up in the hands of people who might commit mass shootings.

Alas, the Manchin-Toomey bill never had a chance. The NRA went all out to stop it, and several Republicans senators, starting with Ted Cruz of Texas, claimed that the bill’s passage would lead to a federal gun registry. In the end, although four Republicans voted in favor of the bill, four Democrats, all from states that Romney won, voted against it. The final vote was 54-46. Or, more accurately, 46-54 — with a minority of senators blocking the proposal. It went down because of, yes, the filibuster rule that requires 60 votes to end debate on a bill.

So here we are again. Eight people were killed last week in a mass shooting in Atlanta. Ten more died in a mass shooting in Boulder, Colorado, on Monday. President Joe Biden has called for tougher gun laws, including a ban on assault weapons and an end to loopholes that allow gun sales without a background check — the very thing Manchin tried to accomplish in 2013. I don’t know whether the Democrats could muster 50 votes for stricter gun laws, though it is worth noting that all four of the Democrats who voted against the 2013 bill are out of office; two of the Republicans who voted for it (Toomey and Susan Collins of Maine) are still in the Senate. 

What I certainly know — what everyone knows — is that there is no way to get to 60 votes. Once again, the filibuster will stop it cold. A number of Democrats have begun agitating to end the filibuster, but Manchin has said repeatedly that he won’t go along with that because he believes in bipartisanship. And as long as he is a holdout, the filibuster will remain.

Yet the Biden gun plan does exactly what Manchin tried so valiantly to do in 2013. And bipartisanship is nowhere to be found on the Senate floor. With Manchin’s support, the Democrats could both end the filibuster and pass a bill that might cut down on the scourge of mass shootings. Don’t you think that’s worth it, Mr. Manchin?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. His latest project is the Bloomberg-Wondery podcast "The Shrink Next Door."

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