Hopes for robust new gun-control laws are withering away.
Though a bipartisan group of 67 senators voted April 11 to break a filibuster, allowing a slate of proposals to reach the Senate floor for debate, support for the actual measures remains fragile.
Efforts to garner the required 60 votes will be hard-fought, especially with the extended medical absence of Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), a likely yes vote. And, even if the Senate passes a bill, the House seems poised to reject it.
For advocates, such meager support just months after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., is untenable—and discouraging.
Prospects took a steep dive April 17 when the Senate failed to pass a measure requiring background checks for would-be gun purchasers.
“When you think about the fact that 20 children were shot at close range in a suburban area and legislators were fiercely debating whether they should even discuss changes in our government’s laws you have to wonder what it would take to get them to actually pass legislation,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).
“There are moments in history that should be transformative and the Sandy Hook tragedy was one of them,” the Democrat added. “And if we don’t take these moments and turn them into movements, things will likely only get worse and something like this [the mass killing] could happen again.”
Capitol Hill resistance to the emotional impetus of the Newton tragedy, appeals by the White House, and overwhelming public support for firmer gun control stems from deep in-house rifts within the Republican and Democratic parties and political calculations, lawmakers and analysts said.
On the issue of gun control there is an ongoing “civil war” between hardline conservatives and mainstream Republicans, said David E. Johnson, a Republican strategist and pollster who worked on Bob Dole campaign.
“There is the more hardline, tea party element such as Sens. Ted Cruz, [of Texas] and Rand Paul [of Kentucky] who believe in no compromise. They believe that even if they fight and lose the gun debate, they will boost Republican turnout in 2014 and 2016,” Johnson said.
“The larger Republican base, however, believes something needs to be done. They are aware of the public’s support for gun reform and realize Republicans are losing [ground] because they are being viewed as being too extreme and rigid.”
And, even among Democrats there is a divide based on ideology—some represent constituencies in the Midwest and other places where gun ownership is a way of life and some left-leaning Democrats may balk at gun-rights provisions that were included to entice Republicans—and re-election fears.
The National Rifle Association, which sinks a lot of funds into lawmakers’ campaigns, has promised to withdraw support from Republicans and moderate Democrats who support the bill. And, according to Johnson, the tea party has promised to challenge senators and representatives who favor the bill.
“It’s all or nothing with them,” the GOP strategist said.
The NRA and tea party conservatives seem to be holding sway. Already, one of the four original bills approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in March, the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, has been removed. Democrats, such as Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), have vowed to reintroduce the measure via amendment but it is unlikely to pass muster.
And Republican supporters of a bipartisan compromise bill, the Public Safety and Second Amendment Rights Protection Act, have found themselves being pilloried by colleagues and by attack ads.
The bill, cosponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), would strengthen the country’s background check system for gun purchases by extending it to purchases at gun shows and online, while explicitly prohibiting the creation of a national gun registry. And, it would assist states and federal agencies to provide accurate and up-to-date records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
“This compromise legislation shouldn’t be controversial. Nine out of 10 Americans – including a majority of gun owners and a majority of NRA members – support stronger background check laws,” said Reid in an April 15 statement.
“I hope a few unreasonable extremists will not try to prevent an up-or-down vote on this legislation with a filibuster,” he continued. “That would be a shameful tribute to the memory of 27 innocent people who died in Newtown… [And to] the mothers and fathers, loved ones and friends of the 3,300 Americans who have been killed by gun violence since that terrible day at Sandy Hook.”
Other bills in the legislation include the Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act of 2013, which would create specific federal criminal statutes prohibiting the trafficking and straw purchasing of firearms and strengthen penalties for those crimes. And the School and Campus Safety Enhancements Act of 2013 would expand grant programs to help improve school and campus safety.
So far, Capitol Hill lawmakers and political observers believe the Manchin and Toomey background check bill, which gained the endorsement of the pro-gun group Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms April 13, and, more remotely, the gun trafficking prevention bill have the best chances of passage.
“The only question would be what kind of condition they will be in after all the amendments,” Cummings, who co-sponsored a House version of the gun trafficking prevention bill, said. “One of my greatest fears is that they would add amendments to water down any efforts by states to address the gun problem.”
While there is a remote chance that the Senate will pass some gun legislation, however distorted, the probability of the legislation’s success in the House is almost nought because of the deep partisanship within that chamber.
“It may pass the Senate but in the House I don’t even know what they will allow it to reach the floor. I think they will do everything they can to kill it,” said Johnson, founder and CEO of Strategic Vision LLC, a Georgia-based political consulting firm.
House Republicans, he said, “are more hardliners because, the way districts have been re-drawn, there are relatively fewer swing districts. The makeup of the constituencies have changed to become more strongly Republican and strongly Democrat.”
Given those political realities, Johnson said hopes for the first gun control legislation in two decades rest on one thing.
“The only chance of gun control being passed in the near future is if the president can re-take the House for the Democrats,” he said.