Gun Control Proponents Are About To Face Political Reality
The ultimate impact of the Newtown tragedy on the nation's gun laws is likely to be very limited.
Monday will mark the one month anniversary of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School that led to the deaths of twenty-six people, the vast majority of them schoolchildren between the ages of 6 and 7. In that time, there’s been a significant amount of political movement and discussion along with vows from politicians in support of some form of increased gun control ranging from beefing up the background check system to restrictions on high capacity magazines to a return of the 1994 “Assault Weapons” Ban, which expired in 2004. At the moment at least, things seem to be moving at a rather quick pace. The task force led by Vice-President Biden and given the mandate from President Obama of coming up with suggested courses of action on gun control and other issues related to gun violence, for example, will present its recommendations to the President on Tuesday, presumably so that they can be integrated in to the President’s State Of The Union Address in February.
Over the past month, there’s little question that there’s been no small degree of political momentum behind the gun control movement. No doubt, this is motivated in large part by the shock to the nation that the deaths of so many small children. It also doesn’t hurt, of course, that many of the public spokespersons advocating the gun rights position have been largely inept. Given all of this, it’s easy to see why gun control advocates seem so optimistic about the prospect of moving forward on the issues important to them. They certainly do seem to have momentum at the moment. However, as The New York Times notes today, the actual prospects for significant gun control legislation making it through Congress are really quite slim:
WASHINGTON — While President Obama pledged to crack down on access to what he called “weapons of war” in the aftermath of last month’s schoolhouse massacre, the White House has calculated that a ban on military-style assault weapons will be exceedingly difficult to pass through Congress and is focusing on other measures it deems more politically achievable.
As a task force led by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. readies recommendations on reducing gun violence for delivery to the president next week, White House officials say a new ban will be an element of whatever final package is proposed. But given the entrenched opposition from gun rights groups and their advocates on Capitol Hill, the White House is trying to avoid making its passage the sole definition of success and is emphasizing other new gun rules that could conceivably win bipartisan support and reduce gun deaths.
During a day of White House meetings on the issue on Thursday, including one with the National Rifle Association, Mr. Biden focused publicly on universal background checks for gun purchases and the need for more federal research on gun violence. In 15 minutes of public remarks, Mr. Biden made no mention of curbing the production and sale of assault weapons, even though he was a prime author of such a law that passed in 1994 and expired 10 years later. Both he and the president say they strongly support an assault weapons ban.
But Mr. Biden noted that his former colleagues in the Senate have long been “pretty universally opposed to any restrictions on gun ownership or what type of weapons can be purchased.” He said they now seem more open to limits on the purchase of high-capacity magazines.
A spokesman for Mr. Obama said later in the afternoon that the vice president’s remarks merely reflect a desire for a broad approach to gun violence.
“President Obama has been clear that Congress should reinstate the assault weapons ban and that avoiding this issue just because it’s been politically difficult in the past is not an option,” said Matt Lehrich, the spokesman. “He’s also stressed that no single piece of legislation alone can solve this problem, which is why he has asked Vice President Biden to explore a wide array of proposals on topics ranging from gun laws to mental health to school safety.”
The calculation on the assault weapons ban underscores the complicated politics of guns on Capitol Hill despite public outrage after a gunman killed 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December. While the shootings prompted some pro-gun lawmakers to endorse limits on assault weapons, Republicans who control the House Judiciary Committee still oppose such limits.
A statement by the N.R.A. after Thursday’s meeting underscored the political challenges. The group accused the White House of having an “agenda to attack the Second Amendment,” and said it would go to the halls of Congress in its efforts to stop gun restrictions.
“We will now take our commitment and meaningful contributions to members of Congress of both parties who are interested in having an honest conversation about what works — and what does not,” the statement said.
In addition to the fact of Republican opposition and the fact that Republicans in both the House and the Senate have made clear their opinion that the legislative priorities for 2013 should be focused on the fiscal issues facing the nation such as the debt ceiling, sequestration, and finishing up a Continuing Resolution that would cover the rest of the current Fiscal Year. After that they’ll have the Fiscal Year 2014 budget, which is due by September 30th, to work on. Notwithstanding the political winds at the back of the gun control movement at the moment, reality is going to hit very quickly once we’ve moved beyond the discussion phase and into the phase of actually discussing specific policy proposals. The Congress that passed the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban is far different from the Congress we have today, for example. Additionally, post hoc analysis of crime statistics makes it entirely unclear if the ban actually had a significant impact on either crime or the availability of high powered weapons to criminals willing to do what was necessary to obtain them illegally. Under the current political climate, it seems rather apparent that the changes most likely to get through Congress would be legislation that expands the FBI database that gun dealers access to do background checks to include things such as people who have been hospitalized for serious mental illnesses, as well as closing other roadblocks in the background check system. The next most likely to pass would seem to be some kind of a ban on high capacity magazines, although even that one seems doubtful given the current makeup of the House and the presence in the Senate of more than a few Red State Democrats who face re-election in 2014. The piece of legislation at the top of the list, though, another Assault Weapons Ban, strikes me as being something that has absolutely no chance of passing Congress anytime in the next two years, or indeed any time during the next four years of the Obama Presidency.
This is one reason why Vice-President Biden’s comments this week about the ambitions of his task force have been rather muted. Rather than broad legislation, he’s been talking about Executive Orders which, despite the panic coming from some quarters of the right, can only accomplish a very limited number of things. Some of them, such as expanding the Federal Government’s database that is accessible to gun dealers, would likely be helpful. However, most of what could be accomplished by Executive Order would have a minimal impact at best. Indeed, even the idea ‘of “Universal Background Checks” seems problematic. If Joe Smith and his neighbor Dan Jones decide over the back fence to exchange a gun for cash, how is any government entity ever going to be able to regulate that? And, why should they? Indeed, if we’re talking about preventing mass shootings like Sandy Hook, Aurora, Tucson, or UVA, regulations such as that would have done nothing. In each of those cases, the guns used in the crime in question were obtained legally. In the Sandy Hook case, it appears that the legal gun owner did not sufficiently protect her weapons from being used by an unauthorized person. Outside of some Gestapo-like inspection force that invades the home of every person who owns guns, how exactly do we prevent things like that from happening?
Notwithstanding these questions, most people on the right have responded to the post-Sandy Hook backlash by going into full panic mode. All discussions of gun control legislation are characterized as “gun grabbing” even though, outside of a few off the radar exceptions, none of the serious policy proposals put forward over the past month have even hinted at the idea of confiscating guns from people who own them legally under current law. Indeed, it seems pretty clear that a lot of the “gun grabbing” rhetoric has come from the NRA and other gun rights organizations who have used it as a fundraising tool.
None of this is to discount the political impact of the tragedy in Newtown, of course. However, in the end, I think we will find that the actual impact on the law of those events will be far more limited than some of the strongest advocates of gun control apparently think it will be.