The filibuster, however, is only one part of the larger problem of the capture of America’s political institutions by an unrepresentative minority whose outright refusal to compromise is pushing the entire system to a breaking point.
Large majorities of Americans favor universal background checks, bans on “assault-style” weapons, bans on high-capacity magazines and “red flag” laws that would prevent people who might harm themselves or others from purchasing guns.
But the American political system was not designed to directly represent national majorities. To the extent that it does, it’s via the House of Representatives. The Senate, of course, represents the states. And in the Senate (much to the chagrin of many of the framers), population doesn’t matter — each state gets equal say. Fifty-one lawmakers representing a minority of voters can block 49 lawmakers representing a majority of them (and that’s before, again, we get to the filibuster).
Add the polarization of voters by geography — a rural and exurban Republican Party against an urban and suburban Democratic Party — and the picture goes from bad to perverse. Not only can Republicans, who tend to represent the most sparsely populated states, win a majority of the Senate with far less than a majority of votes nationally, but by using the filibuster, a small number of Republican senators representing an even smaller faction of voters can kill legislation supported by most voters and most members of Congress.
The Senate might have been counter-majoritarian by design, but there is a difference between a system that tempers majorities and one that stymies them from any action at all. We have the latter, and like Congress under the failed Articles of Confederation, it makes a mockery of what James Madison called the “republican principle,” which is supposed to enable a majority of the people to defeat the “sinister views” of a minority faction by “regular vote.”
Rather than suppress the “mischiefs of faction,” our system empowers them. Few Americans want the most permissive gun laws on offer. But those who do have captured the Republican Party and used its institutional advantages to both stop gun control and elevate an expansive and idiosyncratic view of gun rights to the level of constitutional law.
The result is a country so saturated in guns that there’s no real hope of going back to the status quo ante. If anything, American gun laws are poised to get even more permissive. If the Supreme Court rules as expected in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, it will strike down a law that requires a license for carrying a concealed firearm.