Clippings: Other court rulings could curb guns

In late June 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled on a case originating in Arizona that may give the nation its best long-term hope for some sort of thoughtful gun control legislation.
We’re talking about establishing meaningful background checks that might prevent someone who beats his wife regularly and has twice been interviewed by the FBI from buying a semi-automatic weapon that he can use to murder 49 innocent people and wound 53 more.
And changing laws that allow suspects on the FBI’s terror watch list to buy weapons that can kill dozens in minutes.  
Those not among the 89 or 90 percent (depending on the poll and the date) who support background checks on purchasers of assault weapons just might be members of Congress who have victims in their thoughts or prayers, but seem more concerned about their re-election and the support of the National Rifle Association.
Or, to be specific, they are worried about NRA support shifting instead to challengers in primary elections. That’s the threat the NRA holds over Congressmen, and it’s a real one, at least if Congressmen care more about their jobs and the profits of gun makers than about what they apparently consider to be collateral damage.
Here’s the problem for conservative Representatives, typically Republicans: If they don’t toe the party line, someone even more conservative can win a primary and unseat them. That’s what happened to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia in 2014, for example. Turnout is low in primaries, and for the GOP it largely consists of more conservative voters.
And that’s why the Supreme Court decision of about a year ago offers some hope: It came on gerrymandering, the practice of drawing up state Congressional districts to maximize one party’s seats.
As the Washington Post put it, “Gerrymandering deprives voters of genuine choice and encourages extreme partisanship, since many incumbents have to worry more about challenges from their flanks than from the other party.”
Gerrymandering has also given a disproportionate amount of power to a small group of people out of the mainstream of American thought — in this case to the 10 or 11 percent who don’t want background checks on buyers of semi-automatic weapons.
Congressional districts are created two basic ways. Often state legislatures call the shots. Republicans have done well in many Midwestern and Western states in recent decades. GOP state lawmakers, cooperating with their federal counterparts, have worked to further their party’s interest by drawing Congressional districts that favor Republican electoral prospects.
For example, in 2012 Mitt Romney defeated Barack Obama in North Carolina with 50.6 percent of the vote. But nine of the state’s 13 Representatives (69 percent) are Republican because of the way the state legislature mapped the districts.
It’s important to note that was done illegally, according to a February federal court ruling, because it shortchanged the state’s many African-American voters.
Back to the Supreme Court case on gerrymandering: It came from Arizona, where voters, fed up with the latest unfair legislative redistricting there, approved a ballot measure taking away the authority from lawmakers and giving it to an independent commission, the other typical — and more objective — method of creating Congressional districts.
Arizona lawmakers appealed, but the Supreme Court sided with the voters. It could start a trend. The North Carolina federal court ruling came this February, and the Supreme Court refused to review it. This, the courts, is where hope for change in the practice of gerrymandering and, eventually, gun laws comes in.
Gerrymandering is not isolated to Arizona and North Carolina — Texas is the champion. In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote along partisan lines, approved a redistricting plan that had added five Republican seats.
In 2012, Texas was at it again, with redistricting creating two more GOP seats. The result, according to chron.com: “The Lone Star State has some of the craziest looking districts in the country. Those districts are efficient at creating an advantage for conservative politicians in the state.”
Democratic Austin is carved up into several districts, one of which, the 35th, stretches 74 miles so it can lump some Latino San Antonio voters into it. The 33rd looks like two amoebas joined by a long straw and spans about 40 miles, including parts of Fort Worth, Dallas, Irving and Arlington.
Why does this matter for gun control?
Here’s another issue as an example. In May, the House voted to remove an illegal attachment on a defense bill that would allow contractors to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer individuals. But House Republican leadership turned up the heat, and seven House members changed their votes, enough to defeat the amendment by one vote.
Why the vote switch? According to Rollcall.com: “Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., who voted for the amendment, said it was clear some members were asked to switch their votes to protect those who didn’t want to be on the record voting for the overall bill if it included the LGBT amendment. He suggested that the aim was to protect members from safe Republican districts concerned about future primary challenges from the right.”
“Members are more worried about their primaries than general elections,” Dent said.
And that’s exactly how it works with the NRA. Cowardly members also fall into line on gun control when they are from those “safe Republican districts.”
Hey, if they get those districts fair and square through an honest districting system, good on them. Sadly, that’s too rare, but the good news is that maybe federal courts are poised to force changes in gerrymandering.
Of course, the next president could appoint several U.S. Supreme Court justices. That’s something those seeking reasonable gun laws might want to keep in mind in November.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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