Gun Control Prospects Recede As Politics Swamp Momentum
President Obama's campaign for new federal gun control laws takes him to Colorado on Wednesday, and next week back to Connecticut, where the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre renewed the nation's fraught conversation about guns.
Though his trip to Connecticut was designed to coincide with the start of gun control debate in the U.S. Senate, that reportedly could be delayed even further, and the president's push for comprehensive federal legislation appears to be in jeopardy.
"People assume the demise of this [Senate gun control] bill was how slowly it moved," says Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Cook Political Report, which provides nonpartisan political analysis. "But it had more to do with the fact that it has more hot buttons in it than most legislation since health care reform. And without any of the sweeteners."
Another reason is simple re-election politics, especially for Democratic senators in more conservative states facing 2014 races, including Mark Pryor in Arkansas, Mark Begich in Alaska and Mary Landrieu in Louisiana. Pryor and Begich oppose an assault weapons ban, and Landrieu is the subject of ads, funded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, pressuring her to support comprehensive background checks on gun buyers.
States Reflect Divide
Politically, the picture is similar in the states.
A handful of blue states — including Connecticut, which is expected to pass strict new legislation Wednesday — have approved more stringent gun laws since the Dec. 14 school massacre.
But many more red states have taken the opposite tack and eased gun laws, expanding, in particular, the ability of residents to carry concealed weapons, according to legislative data compiled by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which advocates for gun control laws at the state level.
"The country has sorted, most people have aligned or realigned politically," says Stuart Rothenberg, analyst and editor of his eponymous, nonpartisan political report. "That makes many of our issues, which weren't partisan before, partisan now."
Politicians like Pryor and Landrieu, he says, are "caught between a rock and a hard place."
Translation: The horrors of the shooting spree, when Adam Lanza in a matter of minutes used semi-automatic firearms to massacre 20 children and six adults, have proven not enough to change political reality.
Nor have millions of dollars put up by billionaire Bloomberg to advance comprehensive gun laws.
Or Vice President Joe Biden's visible role in promoting a legislative package that sought to reinstitute the ban on assault weapons, limit the capacity of magazines, require background checks at gun shows, and crack down on gun traffickers.
The National Rifle Association has seen no reason to budge on its opposition to all of the above. On Tuesday, it released a 225-page report on its proposal that centers on arming school staff.
Members of Congress return from vacation next week to tackle gun control with an increasingly shrinking plate of legislative possibilities.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has already indicated that an assault weapons ban proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and co-sponsored by 21 Democrats lacks votes to pass and won't be part of the bill.
As consolation, Reid has said he'll allow debate on an amendment that would essentially renew the 1994 ban, which expired nine years ago.
"Leader Reid has made a determination, and we'll just have to see how that goes," says Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., sponsor of a gun-trafficking bill in the House and whose nephew was killed two years ago in gun violence.
Federal efforts to limit the sale of high-capacity magazines of the type used by Lanza in Newtown also appear to be stalled. Police records indicate that Lanza, using 30-round magazines, fired 155 times in about five minutes.
That leaves gun control advocates with the possibility of expanding background checks to gun shows — though no agreement has been reached — and stricter gun trafficking laws.
The Washington Post, however, has reported that the NRA is lobbying to change trafficking language in a way that would gut the provision.
Cummings, speaking this week at the National Press Club, reflected the newly low Democratic expectations: "I believe we'll get legislation through," he said. "I don't know what it might be."
Action And Reaction
Gun control advocates have touted action in the states.
Connecticut legislators on Wednesday are expected to easily pass a measure that would put more muscle behind the state's assault weapons ban to include those used by Lanza, ban the sale of large-capacity magazines, and institute universal background checks for gun and ammunition sales.
Colorado has passed laws requiring background checks for private sales, and banning large-capacity magazines. New York approved a number of provisions similar to those in Connecticut and also providing a path to take firearms from mentally unstable owners.
But nearly a dozen states have eased gun laws, including provisions that expand the places guns are allowed, limit access to conceal-carry records, and allow schools to arm employees — including volunteers.
Forget national polls that suggest support for expanded gun control, Rothenberg says.
"Go tell that to a congressman from rural Georgia," he said. "Nobody cares what the national polls show — in the district, it's just not that way."
State legislation in the pipelines across the nation also skews heavily toward easing gun laws, with Maryland, New Jersey and Washington state the notable exceptions.
Among bills that have been approved and are awaiting a governor's signature are one in North Dakota that would allow concealed weapons to be carried in churches and schools, and another in Montana that would eliminate permit requirements for carrying a concealed weapon.
Back in December, there was a sense that background checks would be easy to get done — "a gimme," Rothenberg says.
"But the devil is in the details," he said, and on guns "you don't have a lot of people feeling particularly pressured to do anything."
In the end, however, gun control advocates need to get something, he says, and will have to cooperate with the NRA to do so.
"The political reality is that the NRA, surprisingly, didn't give an inch," Rothenberg says. "Now the other side needs to figure out a way to negotiate."
Even while some Republican senators threaten to filibuster any gun control measure that comes to the floor.