(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
The consensus among most analysts is that the shootings in Aurora, Colorado, are unlikely to change current gun laws—that, despite the bloodshed and the outrage, our statues aren’t up for radical reconsideration.
But that’s not necessarily accurate—in fact, our existing gun laws are poised to get much weaker. In the current Congress and the one before it, pro-gun legislators have proposed and passed a variety of truly shocking measures that would weaken what laws are currently on the books—and remember, President Obama is only willing to enforce “existing law,” whatever that might be.
Here are five of the most craven gun bills in the 111th and 112th Congresses:
More guns for veterans with mental issues. In October, the House passed HR 2349, the Veterans’ Benefits Act of 2011. The bill, which is awaiting action in the Senate, contains a provision introduced by Representative Danny Rehberg of Montana that would forbid the Department of Veterans’ Affairs “from determining a beneficiary to be mentally incompetent for the purposes of gun control, unless such a determination were made by a judge, magistrate, or other judicial authority based upon a finding that the beneficiary posed a danger to himself or others.” In other words, the VA would no longer be able to alert federal authorities that a veteran is mentally unfit to own guns, unless they are able to get a judge to certify it. Currently, professionals at the VA simply make the determination and pass it on to the FBI.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, as of May 1, 2011, there were 130,886 files in the national gun-check database’s mental-defective file, which had been referred to the FBI by the VA. This means that in the coming years, if Rehberg’s provision passes, tens of thousands of veterans whom the VA considers unsuitable to have weapons would be able to buy them.
More guns for suspected terrorists. There are many things that will disqualify you from buying a gun—if you’re a convicted felon, you won’t pass a background check. But if you’re on the federal government’s watch list of terror suspects, you will pass the background check just fine. In 2010, in fact, 247 people suspected of ties to terrorism passed background checks and purchased weapons.
Senator Frank Lautenberg has repeatedly tried to pass legislation that would make one’s presence on a terror list a disqualifier for buying guns, and has received support from the Bush and Obama Justice Departments. But pro-gun legislators have thwarted the bill every time.
There are, of course, very legitimate civil libertarian concerns with the arbitrary system by which the federal government creates the terror watch list. But Republicans generally take it very seriously—and so their opposition to Lautenberg’s bills truly speaks to the depth of pro-gun sentiments in Congress.
Stepping on states with tougher laws. The House also passed a bill last fall that would essentially establish a lowest-common-denominator for concealed-carry permits. (It awaits action in the Senate, where in the last Congress, a similar measure sponsored by Senator John Thune was narrowly defeated).
HR 822, the National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act of 2011, basically says that states with tough laws on concealed-carry can’t enforce them on people who come there from other states with weak laws.
Thirty-eight states have “shall issue” laws, which means that a concealed-carry permit must be issued to anyone who applies and meets the criteria—which varies from state to state. (Some require mental health checks, for example, while others don’t). Other states have “may issue” laws, where state and local authorities have much more discretion.
Many states with tough gun laws don’t honor concealed carry permits from states that basically rubber-stamp permits—but HR 822 would require they do.
Notably, when the House Committee on the Judiciary considered this bill, Democrats tried to attach a number of amendments that would at least deny concealed-carry permits to certain groups: persons on terrorist watch lists, sex offenders, stalkers, drug traffickers to minors, and assailants of police officers. Republicans defeated each amendment.
More guns in public housing. Gun violence is tightly concentrated in poor, urban areas, which makes a bill passed by the House Financial Services Committee in 2009 particularly heinous—a successful amendment to the Section 8 Voucher Reform Act would forbid federal authorities from prohibiting firearm possession in public housing complexes.
Hamstringing the ATF. It’s well-known that pro-gun legislators have prevented the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms from having a director since 2004. But in the past two Congresses, legislators have further tied the hands of the ATF in all sorts of ways. (And if you think the furor over the bureau’s Fast & Furious operation isn’t part of that effort, you aren’t paying attention.)
In its budget requests, the Obama administration has proposed the removal of several restrictions placed on ATF funding in 2004. But not even the Democratic-controlled Senate would oblige, and the restrictions remain in place. The funding restrictions:
prohibit the use of any funding appropriated for ATF to disclose firearms trace or multiple handgun sales report data for any purpose other than supporting “bona fide” criminal investigation or agency licensing proceedings,
prohibit the use of any funding appropriated for ATF to issue new regulations that would require licensed dealers to conduct physical inventories of their businesses, and
require the next-day destruction of approved Brady background check records.
In addition to preserving these riders, in April the House passed a FY2013 appropriations bill that would also forbid the ATF from:
Altering the regulatory definition of “curios and relics,”
requiring federally licensed gun dealers to conduct physical inventories, or
revoking a federal firearms license for lack of business activity
These rules mainly help protect large gun dealers, allowing them to distribute firearms under decreased regulation if they are labeled an antique, and protecting them from examination of their business records.