Despite Aurora massacre, most in Congress see political hazard in tighter gun laws
WASHINGTON – In 2004, then-Gov. Mitt Romney signed a law to ban assault weapons in Massachusetts. Campaigning for president in 2008, Barack Obama made it clear that he would try to reinstate the decade-long federal ban on assault weapons that had expired.
But after a shooter opened fire with an assault rifle and handguns early Friday in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. – killing a dozen people and wounding 58 others – Obama and Romney both gave predictable “my heart goes out” comments without addressing some serious policy issues raised by the massacre.
Foremost, neither politician mentioned the obvious question that occurred to other Americans: How is it that a disturbed 24-year-old can legally buy a semiautomatic assault rifle, an oversize, 100-round ammunition magazine and a semiautomatic Glock pistol?
“This really is an enormous problem for the country, and it's up to these two presidential candidates," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told CBS on Sunday. "They want to lead this country, and they've said things before that they're in favor of banning things like assault weapons. Where are they now and why don't they stand up?”
Of local and regional political leaders, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, have come out for a ban on assault weapons in the aftermath of the Aurora tragedy. Mostly, though, local leaders have been silent.
The answer to Bloomberg's question is that most politicians won't "stand up" for gun control because they fear a backlash in the November elections. As a result of the relentless efforts of the 4.3 million-member National Rifle Association and related groups, support for gun control in Congress – and in state legislatures – has diminished. And, for the first time, an annual Gallup poll on gun issues found last fall that 53 percent of Americans surveyed opposed an assault-rifle ban; only 26 percent favored a handgun ban.
That gradual change in public opinion has occurred in spite of a series of tragic, highly publicized shootings in recent years – in places whose names have become emblems of mass murder, like Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Tucson – that have traumatized students, movie-goers, a military installation and even a member of Congress.
After meeting with some survivors and families of the victims in Aurora on Sunday, Obama said he hoped that “over the next several days, next several weeks, and next several months, we all reflect on how we can do something about some of the senseless violence that ends up marring this country.”
But that, apparently, does not include a gun-control initiative. White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that Obama had no plans to advocate new legislation. “The president's view is that we can take steps to keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have them under existing law. And that's his focus right now,” Carney said.
As for Romney, he told
Lobbying, contributions shape gun issues
The NRA, which did not offer an official comment immediately after the Aurora shootings, has argued consistently over the years against any gun control, arguing that the Second (“right to bear arms”) Amendment bars such laws and contending that it is disturbed people, rather than the availability of weapons, that threaten public safety.
Between 2001 and 2010, the NRA spent between $1.5 million and $2.7 million on federal-level lobbying efforts, according to an analysis by OpenSecrets.org The NRA not only supports individual candidates through its Political Victory Fund, but also spends millions on issue ads and other “off-the-books spending.” In the 2010 election cycle the NRA made more than $7.2 million on independent expenditures at the federal level.
In contrast, the organizations that back gun control, including the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence – named after White House press secretary Jim Brady, who was badly wounded in the 1982 shooting attack on President Ronald Reagan – have comparatively little political clout. According to OpenSecrets, the Brady Campaign’s political action committee spent only $10,800 in contributions in the 2010 election cycle, and only $40,000 for its lobbying efforts over those two years.
But those groups tend to be outspoken. Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign, said Friday’s Colorado massacre “is another grim reminder that guns are the enablers of mass killers and that our nation pays an unacceptable price for our failure to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.” So far this year, the Brady group points out on its website, more than 55,000 Americans have been shot.
Click here for the Brady list of mass shootings in this country since 2005.
Thirty national, state and local “gun violence prevention” groups, including the Brady campaign, issued a joint statement Friday saying the Aurora shooting “is the price paid in death, pain and suffering by families and communities for an out-of-control, militarized gun industry that prides itself on selling increasingly lethal products to virtually anyone with little concern for the inevitable tragedies that result.”
The political influence of the gun-control lobby peaked early in the administration of President Bill Clinton, who urged Congress to pass the Brady bill, which required background checks for gun buyers. In 1994, Clinton convinced Congress to pass a law that banned high-capacity, semiautomatic assault rifles. A 10-round limit was enforced on semiautomatic rifles that could still be purchased legally. Clinton also opposed “cop killer” bullets in 1995, saying: “I have never seen a deer, a duck or a wild turkey wearing a Kevlar vest.”
But times had changed by the time the assault weapons ban expired in 2004, and efforts by some lawmakers to renew the ban since then have been blocked by opponents of gun control. In February 2009, Attorney Gen. Eric Holder commented in passing at a news conference that “there are just a few gun-related changes that we would like to make, and among them would be to reinstitute the ban on the sale of assault weapons.”
But the Obama administration has not proposed such legislation, and Holder has been a consistent target of NRA-inspired attacks since then.
When U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., was shot in the head – in an attack that killed six and injured a dozen others at her Tucson town hall meeting in January 2011 – some members of Congress, including Clay, called for a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines for semi-automatic handguns of the sort used by the Tuscon killer. But bills to that end sponsored by U.S. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., in the House and by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., in the Senate, went nowhere.
After the Aurora massacre, Lautenberg and Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both D-Calif., were the most outspoken senators calling for a revival of the federal assault-weapon ban. Another lawmaker who questions the availability of assault weapons and 100-round ammunition clips was Durbin. “The fact that he could kill so many people with a military assault weapon. … You know, the military assault weapons should be reserved for the military and law enforcement,” Durbin told reporters Monday.
“And a 100-round [ammunition] clip? Who in the world needs a 100-round clip other than one of our soldiers or someone in law enforcement?” Durbin said. “It isn’t something that should be available to just any person in America.”
Clay agrees that "renewing the assault weapons ban is a common-sense action we can take now to begin stemming the violence we increasingly see in our communities."
In a statement for the Beacon, Clay said, "We had a ban on assault weapons from 1994 to 2004, and the Republic endured -- and we were safer. I was a strong proponent of continuing the ban, but the Republican majority let it expire."
U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, also thinks action is in order, but stopped short of a specific endorsement of a ban on assault weapons. "The Aurora shooting and other similar tragedies in recent years shows a massive societal flaw in the ease with which those who wish to do great harm can acquire a means to do so. Doing nothing is simply no longer an option," he said.
Carnahan added: "As a people and as a Congress, we must have a serious discussion about commonsense reform to close loopholes and protect American families, without infringing on the Second Amendment rights enjoyed by law-abiding citizens, including our sporting communities."
Neither Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., nor Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., had much to say after the Aurora shooting. In general, Blunt has opposed gun control laws – and played a role as the House Republican whip in blocking an extension of the assault weapons ban in 2004. McCaskill has not been vocal on gun issues.
In a recent letter to a Missouri constitutent, McCaskill wrote that she “strongly support(s) legal and safe gun ownership by law-abiding citizens and have consistently voted to uphold this constitutional right.” However, she added that law enforcement authorities “should improve the process of background checks for court-determined, dangerous mental conditions at the time of all gun sales. Also, I think we should consider placing certain restrictions on assault weapons and closing the gun show loophole.”
The office of Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who is still recovering from a stroke, did not respond to a Beacon request for comment on gun-control initiatives in the wake of the Aurora shooting. When he was still a U.S. representative representing a suburban Chicago district, Kirk introduced a bill in June 2008 to reinstate the assault weapons ban for 10 years and expand the list of banned weapons. But Kirk appeared less supportive of gun control when he ran for statewide office in Illinois.
At the state level, Illinois has a ban on certain assault weapons, and Quinn said this week that the Aurora massacre was a good example of why the state should maintain its ban on assault weapons; he has also expressed opposition to legalizing concealed carry in Illinois. In Missouri, Gov. Jay Nixon – who portrays himself as an avid hunter – has not commented on any implication of the Aurora shooting on state gun control efforts.
But Lautenberg vowed in a Senate speech Monday to continue his often lonely quest to limit the availability of certain weapons. Calling federal gun laws “outdated,” the senator said he would look for “common-sense measures” that might stand a chance in Congress.
After the Senate observed a moment of silence for the Aurora victims, Lautenberg said: “What do we do besides weep with these people? What do we want to do to prevent it in the future? That’s going to be the test.”