CQ WEEKLY – COVER STORY
STATE OF THE UNION PREVIEW
Feb. 9, 2013 – 2:45 p.m.
Even After Newtown, Little Change
By John Gramlich, CQ Staff
Many Democrats in Congress have heeded Obama’s call and are pushing the policy changes he has proposed, including a much tougher version of the expired assault-weapons ban, a prohibition on ammunition magazines that contain more than 10 rounds and a requirement that every gun sale, including those between private individuals, be subject to a criminal background check.
House Republican leaders haven’t ruled out those proposals, preferring instead to take a wait-and-see approach on whatever legislation the Democratic Senate might pass.
Even so, a month into the president’s legislative push, it’s difficult to see how Obama will achieve the lofty goals he has set out. There is a strong possibility, in fact, that the only legislation to reach his desk would make relatively modest changes to existing law.
The assault-weapons ban sponsored by California Democratic Sen.
Some Democrats, too, pose obstacles for the president. Notably, Senate Majority Leader
The administration itself seems to acknowledge that the proposed assault-weapons ban, the focus of much media attention, is destined to falter. Biden said during a Jan. 24 online forum that he is “much less concerned” with the assault-weapons ban than he is with prohibiting large-ammunition magazines.
The magazine issue, in turn, appears to have taken a back seat to universal background checks on gun sales as the top priority for both the White House and the gun control advocacy groups that are working alongside it. New York Democratic Sen.
Even an expansion of background checks, however, is far from assured. Republicans, including House Majority Leader
Christopher H. Schroeder, a former assistant attorney general for legal policy under Obama, says there is a danger that background-check legislation might be weakened to the point where it would be difficult for the administration to claim “with a straight face” that it has scored a meaningful victory.
All the familiar forces that have thwarted past congressional efforts to restrict guns and ammunition remain in place today, says Kristin A. Goss, a public policy professor at Duke University and the author of a book about the history of the gun control movement. “Things don’t change quickly” on Capitol Hill, Goss says, not even with the raw horror of the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut still fresh.
Even After Newtown, Little Change
When Obama delivers his State of the Union address, he’ll have an audience in the House chamber that includes many friends of the National Rifle Association. The powerful gun rights lobby, which claims 4.5 million members and can spend heavily on campaigns and lobbying, has voiced opposition to essentially every aspect of the president’s proposals. More than half of the members in the House, and almost half in the Senate, have NRA ratings of “A” or higher, indicating that they have “solidly pro-gun” voting records.
The overwhelmingly majority of lawmakers with “A” ratings are Republicans, underscoring the partisan split over gun restrictions and the difficulty of moving such legislation through a politically divided Congress. Cantor and Speaker
Although Democrats generally are more receptive to gun restrictions than Republicans, they are far from united on the issue. Some Democrats are strong gun supporters. Sen.
And the strong gun supporters in Congress aren’t out of step with their constituents. In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, polls have shown continued strong support for gun rights, and a majority of the public has a favorable view of the NRA, says Jennifer Dawn Carlson, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley.
Obama himself has always seemed acutely aware of public support for gun rights. During his first term, the president did so little to advocate gun control that the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence gave him an “F” rating. In recent public appearances, the president has emphasized his respect for the Constitution’s language on firearms.
“Let me be absolutely clear. Like most Americans, I believe the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms,” he said when he announced his gun proposals. “I respect our strong tradition of gun ownership and the rights of hunters and sportsmen.”
Obama’s drive for new firearm restrictions is further complicated by the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller, which left no doubt that the Second Amendment applies to individuals rather than to militias. Carlson says that decision has “made it very, very difficult for anyone to argue an alternative interpretation.”
Some gun rights advocates, such as Denver University constitutional law professor David B. Kopel, have issued pre-emptive warnings that the administration’s proposals on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines are plainly unconstitutional under Heller.
“Firearms that are widely and commonly used for legal purposes are firearms that are legal under the Constitution,” says NRA President David Keene.
If broad gun control legislation seems at this stage to have dim prospects on Capitol Hill, Obama and the lawmakers and advocacy groups that are aligned with him are at least succeeding in giving the issue greater visibility — and a longer shelf life — than after previous mass shootings. In that respect, Goss says, the current debate is different and may lay the groundwork for significant policy changes in the future.
Goss already sees indications that the tide is turning. An advocacy field that has always been tilted heavily in favor of the NRA is getting new players, including three dedicated Washington lobbyists hired by billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his gun control group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat who was shot in the head at a meeting with constituents in 2011, and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, have formed Americans for Responsible Solutions to counter the NRA’s influence. Goss says Giffords and other survivors speak with a “moral authority” that resonates with neutral observers.
Even After Newtown, Little Change
“We have to help members of Congress understand that the NRA just isn’t what it used to be,” he said Jan. 29 upon the release of his first report, which said the NRA lost many of the races it invested in during the 2012 cycle.
Murphy, however, isn’t representative of Congress as a whole. He’s newly elected to a six-year term from a safely Democratic state, one that already has some of the stiffest gun control laws in the nation.
A truer test of the Senate’s willingness to buck the NRA and pass the president’s proposals will be found among the likes of the conservative pro-gun Democrats who are facing re-election. And in the House, any Republican who votes for much tougher gun and ammunition restrictions in the months ahead can almost be assured of facing a primary challenge from the right next year.
“We may not be able to prevent every massacre or random shooting. No law or set of laws can keep our children completely safe. But if there’s even one thing we can do, if there’s just one life we can save, we’ve got an obligation to try.”
—Obama’s remarks on gun violence, Minneapolis, Feb. 4
Status of the issue: Following four weeks of review by a Cabinet-level task force headed by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the president announced in January a set of executive actions and legislative proposals to address the issue of gun violence. The top White House priority is for Congress to require a background check for all gun sales. Less likely to win support on Capitol Hill is Obama’s call to renew and strengthen a ban on sales of assault weapons, enacted in 1994 and allowed to expire in 2004.