Guns, the budget and gerrymandering highlight NC’s political dysfunction

Guns, the budget and gerrymandering highlight NC’s political dysfunction

- in Progressive Voices, Top Story

It can’t have escaped many folks’ notice – even those, bless their hearts, for whom the really big news involves the onset of football season – that our political systems these days feature a whole lot of wheel-spinning and gear-grinding in the face of epic challenges.

Psychopaths toting massacre-model firearms stalk public gathering places and wreak carnage on innocent people who happened to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time – perhaps caught by design because they were seen as part of the immigrant “invasion” that our venomous president rails against.

But as the days march by since a gunman took it upon himself to try to repel that invasion by taking 22 people’s lives at a Walmart in predominantly Latino El Paso – while another shooter killed nine evidently at random in Dayton – the calls for more effective firearms laws are making scant headway. Thus repeats a sickening pattern laid down in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, Pulse, Charleston, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, Stoneman High School and more – the hideous roll call no longer needs elaboration as it conjures images of the terrified fleeing while the unlucky sprawl bleeding or dead.

The inaction, whether in Washington or many state capitals including Raleigh, reflects an unholy alliance between the tentacled power complex known as the gun lobby and politicians who both depend on support from gun-rights hardliners and are afraid to cross them.

Broader public opinion, by most accounts, understandably favors stricter limits on the kinds of firearms available for civilian purchase and on those weapons’ ammunition capacity. Better background checks on gun buyers and waiting periods before a buyer takes possession seem like common sense in the face of mass shooting after mass shooting, let alone the “routine” mayhem facilitated by this country’s easy gun access.

How is it, then, that our elected representatives can be so unresponsive to views so widely held? Yes, the National Rifle Association and its allies have been geysers of contributions that can help swing a campaign. Gun-rights enthusiasts can be reliable single-issue voters. But what about the sizeable cross-section of voters appalled by unrelenting gun violence and eager to move decisively against it? Don’t they count?

Anti-violence agenda

In North Carolina – where the N.C. Council of Churches has become a leading voice in gun-violence prevention – two bills in the General Assembly represent a logical response amid the crisis.

One of them, House Bill 454, would add our state to the 17 that now have a legal process which can lead to the confiscation of firearms from people judged to be dangerous to themselves or others. These so-called “red flag” laws, hinging on what H.B. 454 calls “extreme risk protective orders,” have been opposed by absolutists who worry that gun owners’ rights under the 2nd Amendment to keep and bear arms could be violated.

But no constitutional right is so utterly absolute that it sometimes shouldn’t have to be interpreted in the context of overall public safety and welfare. Allowing a court to consider evidence that someone with access to firearms may be plotting to become the next mass shooter – yes, that’s the worst-case scenario but manifestly not unthinkable – simply strikes the necessary sort of balance in the light of agonizing experience.

House Bill 86, also in the spotlight, is a broader effort not to ban the military-style firearms that seem to be mass shooters’ weapons of choice – even though a ban on civilian ownership strikes many of us as reasonable – but to require the purchaser of such an assault rifle or other long gun to obtain a permit, just as pistol buyers already must do.

The bill also prescribes a three-day waiting period for a purchase to take effect and limits the size of ammo magazines (mass shooters don’t want to have to bother with frequent reloading), among other sensible measures. So sensible, in fact, that it’s been left to languish in a committee in the Republican-controlled House ever since it was introduced in February.

House Democrats have resorted to a rarely used (because rarely successful) parliamentary maneuver called a discharge petition that could pry both bills out of committee – hoping that at least some of the provisions might make it into law. But at least a half-dozen Republican House members would have to buck their leaders for the bills to move.

Absent a tsunami of public (i.e. voter) demands for action, any such outcome has to fall in the don’t-hold-your-breath category. Still, that shouldn’t stop violence-prevention advocates from pushing GOP legislators to focus on what’s actually at stake – the lives that could be lost, right here in North Carolina, and the culpability of those who side with gun-rights ideologues.

Troubling prognosis

The gun violence arena is by no means the only one where legislative Republicans are letting ideology frustrate the public interest.

Nearly six weeks have gone by since a new state budget for the 12 months ending next June 30 was supposed to be in place. But Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, citing in particular the Republicans’ refusal to incorporate expansion of Medicaid into the budget – thus continuing to exclude upwards of 200,000 poverty-stricken residents from health coverage – vetoed the budget bill.

House Speaker Tim Moore of Kings Mountain keeps scheduling votes on a veto override, but because of GOP losses in last fall’s elections his caucus no longer can manage an override without help from some Democrats. All manner of local projects have been folded into the budget as giveaways to tempt various Democrats to cave. But so far the party’s support for Cooper’s position has been solid enough to hold.

As for the governor’s own stubbornness, let’s call it standing on principle. His adversaries in the GOP leadership don’t seem open even to possible Medicaid compromises that have been advanced with a degree of Republican support. His veto message was succinct and on target: “This is a bad budget with the wrong priorities. We should be investing in public schools, teacher pay and health care instead of more tax breaks for corporations.”

Cooper holds the policy and moral high ground here. He’s right to keep pressing for Medicaid expansion, or something that serves the same purpose, in the face of opposition so rigid, so doctrinaire and so blind to the benefits of better health care for many of our neighbors who struggle to get by.

Lines of influence

Whether the issue is gun-violence prevention, broader access to health care, policy toward immigrants or any of the similarly hot topics that divide our elected officials into hostile camps with too little real dialogue, another common thread emerges as a leading culprit: abuse of the process whereby election districts are drawn so as to insulate the party in power and spare it from the messy business of negotiation and compromise.

We can imagine that even little kids these days have heard about gerrymandering and the damage it does to our politics. Those in charge of shaping congressional and legislative districts make sure their party keeps the upper hand even in the face of strong overall votes for the other side. Racial minorities in particular have lost influence at the polls because of these tactics, which became so egregious that the courts blew the whistle.

But gerrymandering that marginalizes voters simply because of which party they’re likely to favor remains alive and well. The U.S. Supreme Court, using North Carolina as a test case, this summer decided that a remedy for extreme partisan gerrymandering was beyond the reach of the federal courts and left the problem for the states to solve.

A state lawsuit brought by the public interest group Common Cause accuses Republican legislative leaders of having been so over the top in their gerrymandering of legislative districts that they’ve violated the state constitution’s guarantees that elections should be free – in other words, without barriers to meaningful participation — and that voters should be treated equally. A 10-day trial before a panel of three Superior Court judges concluded on July 26.

It’s expected to be some time yet before the judges issue their ruling. Meanwhile, they’ve been asked to consider the views of four folks who know a thing or two about the ill effects of partisan gerrymandering because they’ve seen a thing or two.

Four of the state’s living former governors – all of them except for the immediate past occupant of the Executive Mansion, Republican Pat McCrory – on Aug. 7 moved to file a friend of the court brief offering their views on gerrymandering as it’s been practiced by the General Assembly’s current regime.

Republican ex-Gov. Jim Martin joined with Democrats Jim Hunt, Mike Easley and Bev Perdue to describe how today’s sophisticated mapping software allows districts to be drawn precisely to help some office-seekers and punish others. That means some voters exercise disproportionate clout while others essentially see their votes go up in smoke – because they’re slotted into districts where candidates with whom they agree find it practically impossible to win.

What’s more, the governors point out (as have many others) that letting some legislators run from safe, gerrymandered districts allows them to ignore positions favored by voters from the other party. Simply put, they don’t need those votes.

The upshot is that general elections shrink in importance because the results are more or less foreordained. Instead, candidates pay more heed to the view of voters in primaries – who tend to cluster toward the hard-line ends of the spectrum, either right or left. An incumbent who strays from party orthodoxy and toward the center where compromises emerge can be targeted in a primary by a candidate who’d rather drink turpentine than give an inch.

Absent partisan gerrymandering run amok, would Congress and our Tar Heel legislature find it so difficult to make progress against gun violence?

Would our legislators in Raleigh be so inclined to resist expansion of Medicaid even when public health and the state’s economy clearly would benefit from a broader program?

Perhaps if our courts heed the advice of the former governors along with the other ample evidence of how gerrymandering has gotten out of hand, our polarized politics may be nudged back from dysfunction’s brink.

Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches.