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August 1, 2015

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A failure in the gun debate

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It is possible that the high point of this past week in Washington came when Sen. Dianne Feinstein told Sen. Ted Cruz to stop treating her as if she were in middle school.

Let me set the stage. First, pretend you’re Feinstein. You started your political career in San Francisco. While you were on the Board of Supervisors in 1978, your colleague Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated in City Hall. You were the one who discovered Milk’s body.

You arrived in the Senate with an understandable interest in gun violence. The ban on assault weapons you successfully sponsored has long since expired. You’ve been working on a new one for almost a decade, and, after the Sandy Hook slaughter, it looked for a minute as if there might be a chance.

But, as the immediate impact of the tragedy faded, the assault weapons ban lost traction. This had nothing whatsoever to do with the power of the opponents’ arguments, which seem to get weaker by the day. The big pitch of the anti-ban lawmakers is that people need assault weapons for self-defense. But there’s a distinct shortage of examples when they’ve worked better than a normal rifle or pistol.

During a meeting of the Judiciary Committee on Thursday, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas tried to shore up the pro-gun side by offering nine “news stories of people defending themselves with assault weapons” for the record. The list spanned 17 years and included things like “tenant shoots intruder on porch.” If this is the best the ban opponents have to offer, Feinstein’s bill should be passed by unanimous consent.

The other argument, which does not require examples, is that the Founding Fathers wanted Americans in the 21st century to be able to stock up on guns that can fire 45 rounds a minute.

Enter Ted Cruz of Texas, a Tea Party darling. He’s been in office only a few months, but he’s made quite an impression. You may remember his suggestion that Chuck Hagel might have been taking money from North Korea. Or his interesting theories about a United Nations plot to exterminate American golf courses.

Cruz said he had a question for the senator from California. “It seems to me that all of us should begin, as our foundational document, with the Constitution,” he began, in a tone that combined sublime pomposity with a total lack of actual curiosity. “And the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights provides that ...”

He delivered an extensive lecture to the 79-year-old Feinstein. The question buried in the harangue was whether she could imagine listing exceptions to other parts of the Bill of Rights. He could not have asked it in a more patronizing way if he had illustrated his remarks with pictures of large, brightly colored stick figures.

“I’m not a sixth-grader,” said Feinstein, before launching into a fiery defense. The bill, she noted, includes a list of 2,271 types of weapons specifically exempted from its scope: “Isn’t that enough for the people in the United States? Do they need a bazooka?”

“She gave a new meaning to the phrase ‘Leaning In,’” said her fellow committee member Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

Later, Feinstein would tell CNN that she felt Cruz was being “somewhat arrogant,” which seemed like an understatement. Even in an age of political polarization, there apparently is still an unwritten rule against calling someone “a stupendously irritating twit” on national TV.

In committee, Cruz sat sullenly while Feinstein gave her response. “I would note that she chose not to answer the question that I asked,” he said when she finished.

Other Democratic senators jumped in and pointed out some of the ways that other parts of the Bill of Rights were, indeed, limited by exceptions. Interestingly, none of the Republicans came to Cruz’s support. Do you think they ever take a vote for Colleague We’d Most Like to Avoid Meeting in the Elevator? I think we have a candidate.

Then Cruz announced he wanted to “make four points briefly. ...” It’s highly unlikely that a single person in the room wanted four points. And they were not in the least brief. But they were remarkable for their incessant self-reference.

“My fourth and final point is that the Constitution, in my opinion, should be the touchstone of everything we do. ...”

“I would point out that I am not unfamiliar with the Heller case. Indeed, I represented ...”

“In my view, the Constitution is particularly important, ...”

Do you think, people, that this is a key to the stupendous impact the Tea Party continues to have on Congress, even now that it’s proved itself to be a loser when it comes to elections? If you combine a lack of a sense of humor with an absence of humility and then stir in a cup of self-righteousness, you are definitely not working on a recipe for cooperative achievement.

Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.

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