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December 15, 2012 1:48 PM Gun Control Advocates - Take Aim at the Senate Judiciary Committee

By Samuel Knight

Just because advancing gun control in Congress - even post Newtown - seems like an insurmountable task, doesn’t mean that the Senate Judiciary Committee shouldn’t try to do it.

Take the committee’s possible role in advancing gay rights, for example. In November of last year, it passed a Defense of Marriage Act repeal, even though the bill had no chance of ever making it through the GOP controlled House - let alone a full Senate vote.

The occasion did, however, offer Democrats a chance to make a strong case for marriage equality. Al Franken chastised Chuck Grassley for viewing traditional marriage as something worth preserving when men used to be able to treat their wives “like chattel.” Dick Durbin passionately shot down John Cornyn’s claim that the move was a transparent appeal for campaign funds from wealthy LGBTQ donors. The Illinois Democrat argued that he didn’t want to end up on the wrong side of history, and reminded Cornyn that Democrats’ support of the civil rights movement cost them dearly.

Even if the advancement of the repeal amounted to mere political theater, it was rather spectacular as far as committee hearing drama goes (I covered it for Main Justice).

Moreover - and this is speculative, to say the least - the move might have also catalyzed the President’s “evolution” on gay marriage. Yes, the Department of Justice said it wouldn’t defend DOMA in February 2011. But President Obama “came out” in favor of gay marriage itself months after the DOMA repeal passed out of committee. Might the SJC vote have looked like enough of a winner in DNC internal polling to encourage the President to change tack? Maybe Joe Biden’s former committee colleagues gave the White House a reason to be more bold. It was Biden, after all, who appeared to force Obama’s hand on the issue when he spoke publicly in favor of gay marriage a few days before the President.

To be clear, nothing legally tangible resulted from the President’s declaration to support gay marriage - though the morale boost that it offered the LGBT community shouldn’t be understated.

But that he “came out” in favor of it before the election isn’t insignificant. He handily won with Republican strategists unable to make serious hay over the issue. Not that he hasn’t backed out of promises before, but President Obama might, therefore, want to make the advancement of gay rights part of his legacy, especially considering his initial message of change has disappointed on a number of other fronts.

If this is, in fact, the case - if Obama at least tries to advance the issue of gay marriage before 2017 rolls around (assume no Mayan apocalypse) - the Senate Judiciary Committee’s initiative is worth discussing in this narrative.

Might the panel also play a role of debatable significance in advancing gun control in the months to come?

Samuel Knight is a freelance journalist living in DC and a former intern at the Washington Monthly.

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