Democrats Point to Gun Legislation as Justification for Nuking Filibuster

Advocates point to Colorado shooting for motivation, COVID restrictions for inspiration

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) speaks at a gun control rally / Getty Images
March 24, 2021

Democrats are using the mass shooting in Colorado on Monday to renew their push to eliminate the filibuster and pass new gun control legislation.

Prominent Democrats said the Senate must eliminate the filibuster in order to push through new gun control laws in response to the killings. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Rep. Jason Crow (Colo.), Rep. David Cicilline (R.I.), Pennsylvania lieutenant governor candidate John Fetterman, and Pennsylvania Senate candidate Malcolm Kenyatta all called for the filibuster to end in the wake of Monday's attack.

"Things won't get better until Democrats get rid of the filibuster and finally pass gun safety legislation that a huge majority of Americans support," Warren wrote on Twitter. "What are we waiting for – another tragedy?"

On Monday, a man who has been identified by police as 21-year-old Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa began shooting people at a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado. He murdered nine customers and Boulder police officer Eric Talley before surrendering to authorities. He was charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder on Tuesday.

Warren and the other Democrats argued that Alissa's attack justifies getting rid of the filibuster. They said it is impossible to get the 10 Republican votes needed to pass new gun restrictions under the current rules. Instead, they want the rules thrown out so that they can pass such measures as background check expansion and gun bans without the need for any Republican support at all.

President Biden also pressured Congress to pass new gun control legislation on Tuesday during a public address in reaction to the Boulder killings. He called on the Senate to pass the two gun control bills that cleared the House in early March and to implement one of his key campaign promises, a ban on popular firearms like the AR-15.

"The United States Senate should immediately pass the two House-passed bills that close loopholes in the background check system," he said. "We need to act. We should also ban assault weapons in the process."

At the same time, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on those bills. Democrats on the committee began the hearing with a montage video featuring media coverage of mass shootings and a condemnation that "thoughts and prayers are not enough." There was little talk of the filibuster during the hearing, but committee chairman Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) took special pains to connect the recent killings in Colorado with the COVID-19 pandemic.

"These victims and their loved ones are worthy of our thoughts and our prayers but there's more that is required," Durbin said of the Colorado attack. "We face a pandemic of coronavirus. We have another epidemic in America called guns."

Durbin went on to say that "nobody is immune" to gun violence. He said that lockdowns and other restrictions imposed to slow the spread of COVID should be used as a template for pursuing new gun laws.

"If there's one thing we should have learned from COVID-19, it's that when we face a public health crisis, we can reduce the total harm with common-sense, science-based solutions," Durbin said.

The two bills discussed during the hearing, H.R. 8 and H.R. 1446, which are aimed at changing how the gun background-check system works, are expected to pass through the committee in the coming weeks and receive a vote in the Senate. They are likely to be filibustered by Republicans and unlikely to receive the 60 votes necessary to break the filibuster.

Democrats, who hope to use their 50 senators and a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris to do away with the filibuster, face a steep climb. Republicans uniformly oppose the idea. Sen. Ben Sasse (R., Neb.) said "stripping away the mechanism that has forced us to work together" would lead to a more "crude" and "demagogic" politics during a floor speech on Tuesday. Such Democrats as Sen. Joe Manchin (W. Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), and even President Biden have also expressed public opposition to eliminating the filibuster over the past several months.

Democrats who oppose eliminating the procedure have begun to soften their positions in recent weeks, however. Biden and Manchin have recently expressed interest in "reforming" the filibuster to require senators to hold the floor by physically speaking in opposition to a bill. Feinstein said on Friday that she would support that change if the Senate is unable to pass new gun control bills.

"This month the House passed bills to improve background checks for gun purchases and reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, among other key legislation," Feinstein said in a statement. "Ideally the Senate can reach bipartisan agreement on those issues, as well as on a voting rights bill. But if that proves impossible and Republicans continue to abuse the filibuster by requiring cloture votes, I'm open to changing the way the Senate filibuster rules are used."