On March 14, hundreds of students gathered on the steps of the Kansas Capitol, urging lawmakers to stiffen the state’s gun laws.
“Protect kids, not guns,” one sign said. “March for our lives,” another said.
The very next day, the Kansas Senate met to debate several gun control measures. Senators rejected more than half a dozen amendments designed to reduce gun violence, including a waiting period for gun purchases and a ban on bump stocks, which turn some weapons into more efficient killing machines.
It was a pretty good lesson for the students, and for all of us. Lawmakers, it turns out, don’t listen to their constituents all that much.
That isn’t what we, or they, were taught in the classroom. Most Americans believe legislators react to letters, phone calls, protests, town halls, even editorials — and can be convinced to change their minds.
That can be true at the city council level, or the school board, which are mostly nonpartisan bodies. Phone calls had an impact on the airport debate in Kansas City, for example. Sometimes, not always, local politicians adjust their votes.
But at higher levels — the State House or Congress — elected officials now almost always vote their own views, usually with their political party. They’re confident the electorate will forget, or not be bothered to judge politicians on what they actually do.
Guns are a good example. Polls suggest virtually every American supports enhanced background checks for gun purchases, yet Congress has yet to approve them.
The U.S. House did pass a bill promising to spend a whopping $50 million a year to improve school security. That’s about $500 per public school.
The only way to change government is to change the people sent there. Convincing them to change their minds is virtually impossible.
We have some experience with that phenomenon in Kansas.
Former Gov. Sam Brownback was convinced for years that his 2013 tax cuts would rejuvenate the state’s economy. His allies in the Legislature stubbornly stuck to that script, despite overwhelming evidence the tax cuts were a failure.
That all changed in 2017, largely because Kansans sent new legislators to Topeka. Those lawmakers understood the depth of the state’s budget crisis, and responded accordingly.
The fact that lawmakers don’t listen to constituents can be disheartening. Thousands of students gathered Saturday to push for gun legislation. It’s frustrating to think those protests probably won’t move the legislative needle this year.
But activism still has great value. If the students and their allies continue to work hard — and enlist others in their cause — that enthusiasm can be transferred to the voting booth this November.
And if enough people cast ballots, members of Congress who resist gun legislation won’t be a problem. They won’t be able to stand in the doorway or block up the halls.
The debate over whether an elected leader should vote their judgment, or reflect their constituents’ views, is one of the oldest issues in politics.
“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion,” Edmund Burke said in the late 1700s.
Wow. Burke would feel quite at home in the current environment.
He also offers a framework for the 2018 midterm elections: If you oppose your representative’s judgment, you can’t expect to change his or her mind.
You’ll have to vote for someone else.
Dave Helling is a columnist for The Kansas City Star.
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