Gun Control and Congress

Gun Control and Congress

Democrats introduced a gun control bill on the first day of the new Congress. But can they overcome the NRA?


Thank the National Rifle Association for the continued momentum toward gun control. One week after the horrific shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, and only hours after a nationwide moment of silence for the victims, the NRA held a press conference in Washington that was at once bizarre and offensive. Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s vice president, launched into a screed blaming violent video games, the media and, finally, politicians (because they created gun-free school zones, which “tell every insane killer in America that schools are the safest place to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk”) for the bloodshed. So you can guess his solution: more guns, via a federal program deploying armed police to every school by January. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he declared. 

The condemnation was swift. Incoming Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy was leaving a funeral in Newtown when he was handed a copy of LaPierre’s remarks, which he immediately blasted as “the most revolting, tone deaf statement I’ve ever seen.” LaPierre was similarly pilloried by gun control advocates; not a single Republican in Congress has come to his defense.

The key failure of the NRA’s press conference—aside from the fact that LaPierre didn’t take any questions from the press—was that it did not suggest a feasible alternative to gun control. LaPierre’s plan is plainly ineffective: armed guards were present, and useless, at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech. And in the current fiscal climate, no Republican would embrace federal spending of such magnitude, and nearly all Democrats would reject it as an answer to gun violence.

The center of gravity for the debate on gun control is, for once, firmly on the gun control side, and Democrats are working to keep it there. President Obama created a task force to come up with recommendations for controlling gun violence. It is to report back no later than January so he can push Congress to pass them.

In the Senate, Dianne Feinstein plans to introduce an assault weapons ban with much tighter language than the one passed in 1994. It names 120 gun models that would be outlawed and makes a weapon with one military characteristic the bar for illegality (in 1994, it was two). The bill would also outlaw magazines—for assault weapons or handguns—that hold more than ten bullets. It would grandfather in existing owners of assault rifles but require them to register the weapons and pass a background check. Feinstein may also propose an aggressive federal buyback program.

But this momentum—the greatest Washington has seen in two decades—may be insufficient. Unless real filibuster reform is also passed, Feinstein needs sixty votes to get her bill through the Senate. That means winning over her Republican colleagues, none of whom have embraced the NRA’s wild ideas, but none of whom have backed a new ban either. And some Democrats who supported gun control post-Newtown have started hedging: Senator Joe Manchin III wrote an op-ed before the holidays that didn’t back away from his call to ban assault weapons but added that he “simply cannot support any proposal that doesn’t address all aspects of this problem,” including somehow controlling the violent movies put out by Hollywood.

If Feinstein’s bill clears the Senate and gains every Democratic vote in the House, it would still need seventeen Republican votes to pass there. That scenario is certainly possible, but far from assured. If the bill fails, then it’s time to play the long game: making members of Congress who voted against the ban pay for that vote in the 2014 midterms. If that attack is potent, the dynamic could continue to shift toward stronger gun control laws.

The states also offer hope. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, with an eye on the 2016 presidential race, reportedly is pushing to be the first governor to act on gun control—a promising sign of the changing politics on this front. Cuomo wants to strengthen his state’s assault weapons ban, which he accurately notes has “more holes than Swiss cheese.” And he has even uttered a word heretofore shunned in the polite discussion of gun control: “confiscation.”

The urgency of Cuomo’s push was grimly punctuated on the day of Christmas Eve, when a deranged man in Webster, New York, set fire to his house, then gunned down volunteer firefighters when they responded to the blaze. He likely used the same assault weapon as the Newtown shooter, a Bushmaster .223 rifle. Two responders were killed, including a 19-year-old standing in for his older colleagues who wanted to be home with their families on Christmas. Tragedies like this will surely strengthen the calls for gun control, but how many massacres must the country witness before Congress finally acts?

Back in August, our columnist Katha Pollitt wrote “Gun Control? Dream On.”


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