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Why Do Democrats Ever Say “States’ Rights?” (updated x2)

"States’ Rights" has a long and ugly history in America, having been used by racists to bar public accommodation for African-Americans, to stall the integration of public schools, and to stand in the courthouse door crying "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." It’s a hateful and loaded phrase. Among Democrats, Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri is the latest to trip up, making a bone-headed analogy to explain her vote against a gun law on the Senate floor by saying it would provide a "foot in the door… on gay marriage."

Here’s the background: the Senate was considering a bill that would have provided a race to the bottom for concealed-carry laws. The only law that would apply to you carrying a concealed weapon would be your own state’s law, regardless of where you were traveling. Anyone can see the absurd enforcement tangle this would create — something any former prosecutor, which McCaskill is, could easily explain. She could have said, "We can’t ask state law enforcement to be expert in every single state’s concealed-carry laws; state and local police should only be tasked with enforcing the laws of their own jurisdiction. Requiring them to apply other states’ laws, based on where someone resides, is absurd."

That’s the best argument against a really dumb law like this one. The Senate voted it down with Claire McCaskill’s NO vote.

So why did she need to drag "states’ rights" into this discussion? And even worse, why did she analogize this concealed-carry law to marriage equality recognition? Show Me Progress explains:

McCaskill’s explanation for her "No" vote is that she thinks it’s a "state’s rights" issue, and further that "it is a foot in the door to allow the laws in Vermont on gay marriage" to be enforced here in Missouri.

What??? There are plenty of examples you could give of so-called "states rights" issues, like affirming the right of states to enforce stricter environmental regulation than the federal government, rather than citing the "right" of states to maintain the separate status of a minority. Let’s remember that the slogan of "states rights" has been used throughout American history primarily to defend the institution of slavery and later the practice of segregation.

Claire McCaskill’s a member of the Senate Twitterati, and she uses the 140-character platform to respond to criticism of her position, unwisely:

My argument was about states rights,re conceal & carry. Gay marriage is another example of states having rights to decide w/out Washington. 2 minutes ago from web

The rights of minorities shouldn’t ever be up for a vote. Senator McCaskill, from a state with its own slice of America’s checkered racial history, shouldn’t ring the "states’ rights" bell.

Democrats should never use the phrase "states’ rights" to talk about individual states making laws to restrict the rights of fellow American citizens. We settled that in the last century, when we decided to treat everyone the same. Just because America is still catching up on its equal treatment of LGBT people everywhere is no reason to drag out tired, stale, emotionally loaded wordsmithing like "states’ rights."

Words matter. Use words that aren’t loaded with America’s ugly segregationist history.

UPDATE: Via Pam, we have an action item from Missouri’s statewide LGBT advocacy organization, PROMO.

Dear Equality Supporter:

I need your help this morning to educate Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill.

Sen. McCaskill was a co-sponsor on Hate Crimes legislation in the Senate. Her office has received calls from Missouri residents 5 to 1 against her support. The bill was offered as an amendment on a Department of Defense bill and we are still waiting for its fate once the bill goes through a conference committee.

Sen. McCaskill did a great thing in sponsoring the Hate Crimes legislation. However, I do not believe she fully understands and registers why Hate Crimes protections are needed based on her comments yesterday.

A concealed weapon carry bill was up for review in the U.S. Senate, which would have allowed concealed carry permit holders to carry guns between states having similar laws on the books. It was defeated 58-39.

In a statement defending her opposition to this bill, she stated: "This is a foot in the door that would require, for example, the laws in Vermont on gay marriage to be enforced in Missouri."

This is a problem. A state’s rights argument is valid in this situation, however it is inconceivable that an ally can support Hate Crimes legislation- which recognizes the LGBT community is a target of increased abuse, intolerance and aggressive force- but uses a touchstone issue for the community as a shield rather than stand alone on an anti-gun sentiment.

In a time when we have seen incredible strides on a state by state basis, we have turned a corner and will not tolerate being used as a shield. Please reach out to Sen. McCaskill’s office and let her know while she is an ally, you won’t tolerate being used as a shield. The numbers listed are below for local and DC offices.

Thank you,

A.J. Bockelman
Executive Director

Offices of Senator Claire McCaskill:

Washington, D.C.
202.228.6326 (fax)

Cape Girardeau
573.334.4278 (fax)

573.442.7140 (fax)

Kansas City
816.421.2562 (fax)

417.831.1349 (fax)

St. Louis
314.361.8649 (fax)

UPDATE 2: Senator McCaskill issued this statement which sounds like she was trying, albeit very awkwardly, to criticize the cafeteria states’ rights folks who pick and choose on the issues states should be allowed to invoke their sovereignty:

“In talking about my recent vote against the gun provision offered in the Senate, I wasn’t clear when I stated that my vote against that provision was because it came down to a states’ rights. I was expressing my frustration in that some who argue that states shouldn’t respect the laws, certificates, or permits from other states when it’s convenient, like with gay marriage, but then argue that they should when it’s convenient on another issue, like gun rights. They can’t have it both ways,” McCaskill said.

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