Former U.S. Representative Steve Israel explains why Congress seems so paralyzed and can’t pass any commonsense gun control despite the mass violence that is affecting so many communities across the country. Israel reminds that while the solution does lie with the Congress, there is something people can do to push for the passage of meaningful reforms.
Steve Israel: Well, here’s why I wrote Big Guns: I had served in Congress for 16 years, and in those 16 years I witnessed a shooting at a university in Virginia, a shooting at a movie theater in Aurora Colorado, a shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, a shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut—and after every single one of those mass shootings I and virtually every one of my colleagues were confronted with the same question, and that is: when is Congress going to do something about it? When will this stop?
Not necessarily “when will congress do everything about it,” but just “do something,” do universal background checks or some commonsense legislation.
And when my constituents in New York would ask that question I knew that the honest answer (and the painful answer) was: we’re not. Congress is not going to do anything because of the politics that surrounded the gun safety debate.
And I decided to try and answer that question in the best way I can, and that is with snark, with humor, and from the very inside of Congress.
I wrote this book during hearings on gun safety; I wrote this book on the floor of the House of Representatives; I wrote this book on that little balcony off the floor of the House of Representatives where members go to rest while they’re not beating each other up inside.
And so this book—really it’s a reflection of what I learned as a member of Congress, and it is my way of explaining to readers why Congress seems so paralyzed in the face of this mass violence that is affecting so many communities and so many of our constituents.
Ninety percent of the American people support strengthened background checks, about 80 percent of Republicans support strengthened background checks, a majority of an RMA members support strengthened background checks, and yet when we offered this amendment for stronger background checks in the Appropriations Committee it was defeated virtually in a party line vote.
And I was wrestling with this. Why would members of Congress vote against something that has such massive support?
Well, I learned the lesson, and the lesson is reflected in Big Guns. After that hearing I went to one of the most sacred places on Capitol Hill, not a church but the members-only elevator. And the reason it’s sacred is because on the members-only elevator you can’t have tourists in, you can’t have the media in, you can’t have staff in, and so you reach a real level of confidentiality in that cramped space.
And a bunch of members piled onto this elevator after the committee meeting, and one of the Republicans on this elevator said, “Why did you try and force us to vote for this amendment for background checks?”
And I said, “Well, we didn’t force you to do anything. You voted against it. My question to you is why would you vote against it?”
And this member looked at me and said, “I wanted to vote for it, but I can’t go home and explain that vote to my gun lobby voters. It would be the end of my career.”
That tells you everything you need to know about why Congress seems so paralyzed.
I did not want to write Big Guns as my personal screed against the NRA and the gun lobby.
I thought the best and most credible way of writing this book was to bring different characters in with different viewpoints.
And by the way, that’s what Congress is like. It’s different characters with different viewpoints.
And I felt that the best way to tell this story was as a satire, but all satire has to be based on a kernel of truth. And the truth in this book is the fact that Congress does nothing. The book was actually based on an extraordinary and shocking event after the Sandy Hook massacre that killed children in this elementary school in Connecticut. I was reading, sitting having breakfast right after that, I was so convinced that we in Congress were finally going to do something; when first graders are gunned down it would seem that Congress would do something.
And my confidence was really high and I was having breakfast and I was reading my New York Times one morning and I came upon this article, and I could have sworn that the New York Times had been infiltrated by the writers of The Onion, because it seemed so bizarre.
The story was that—while most state and local governments were actually passing local ordinances for gun safety, because Congress would do nothing—the small city of Nelson, Georgia decided that they would go in a different direction. This small city passed a local ordinance requiring that every resident of the city must possess a firearm. And that was my kernel of truth.
And when saw that I—first I had to figure out if it was actually true, and then when I realized that it was true I decided to build a satire around this, only instead of making it applicable to one small city in Georgia, I “federalized” it.
I create this law that requires that every American must own a firearm that works its way through Congress.
Now, if I had just written about the process it would be maybe a slightly lighter version of the Congressional record, still very boring, and so I decided I had to weave into it real characters.
And I had to make sure that the characters express different viewpoints because the gun debate is influenced by so many different viewpoints.
So it was important to me that this story reflect both sides of the issue, but also make the point that Congress will not act because of the politics that surrounds us and the fear that so many of my colleagues have—not that their constituents are going to be shot, but that their careers may be ended if they take on the NRA and the gun lobby.
And I'll just say one other thing on this: after every mass shooting the entire country is galvanized, they want to mobilize.
I mean think about what happened after Parkland. It was so certain that Congress was going to pass something. There were rallies and marches, and everybody was talking about it. But now we’re months from Parkland and what has Congress done? Nothing.
I wrote this book so people will be reminded that the solution to this is in the Congress and they have to keep pressuring their members of Congress to pass meaningful reforms that will make our kids safer.