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Gun Safety Advocates Face Deep Climb in Congress

A few commentators, including Rachel Maddow, have taken pessimists to task for suggesting that the chances of actual meaningful gun safety legislation in the wake of the Tucson assassination attempt are quite low. I think it’s more accurate to describe those pessimists as realists. And joining them is one of the most ardent gun safety supporters in the Congress, Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL).

On a conference call about gun policy in the 112th Congress, Quigley reminded his audience of the landscape in Washington around this issue. In the 111th Congress, one with large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, “My staff worked hard to get members to sign on to an amicus brief in the McDonald case,” said Quigley, referring to a gun rights case in the Supreme Court (ultimately decided in favor of the pro-gun side). “Only 54 members signed on. The Republicans had a brief of their own and they got 260-270 signatures. To my knowledge, there were no hearings on gun control measures in 111th Congress. We struggled to get what they called a briefing on the gun show loophole. The DISCLOSE Act passed only with a monster-sized loophole for the NRA. An unrelated bill about credit cards came with a provision that allowed guns in national parks.” Quigley concluded that “there has not been a lot of support or leadership on this issue prior to this tragedy… it will take a lot of effort to move forward.”

That’s just plainly self-evident, given the facts of the recent past. And even after the tragedy, lawmakers in both parties expressed little hope of any advance on the gun safety side of the equation. John Boehner has basically stated that “the Pledge to America is our plan” and he doesn’t expect to deviate from it regardless of events. Supporters cannot help but dim their expectations, mindful that they might not have a majority for such measures in the Democratic caucus, let alone Congress. This is the foundational statement most members of Congress agree with, as sad as it sounds:

Erich Pratt, the director of communications for Gun Owners of America, said his organization and others were girding for at least a skirmish in Congress. “But I think after the November election it’s going to be very tough for Carolyn McCarthy and even the Peter Kings,” he said “Why should the government be in the business of telling us how we can defend ourselves?”

Mr. Pratt added: “These politicians need to remember that these rights aren’t given to us by them. They come from God. They are God-given rights. They can’t be infringed or limited in any way. What are they going to do: limit it two or three rounds. Having lots of ammunition is critical, especially if the police are not around and you need to be able to defend yourself against mobs.”

Major gun safety legislation has come after national tragedies. Key federal laws came about after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, and after President Reagan’s assassination attempt in 1981, advocates waged a 12-year battle to get the Brady bill, the background check database and the assault weapons ban into place. But that was a different time with a different Democratic caucus. The NRA has simply won this debate. The fact that Carolyn McCarthy has to hope to pull the President off the sidelines shows the difficulty involved here.

That doesn’t mean that advocates should give up. Just today family members and survivors of the Virginia Tech shooting called for closing the gun show loophole (where background checks don’t apply) and increase funding for the habitually underfunded background check system, which needs more information sharing across agencies. Then there’s McCarthy and Frank Lautenberg’s extended magazine bill, and Gary Ackerman’s bill on stopping dealers who lost their licenses to sell guns at private events, and Peter King’s “Get Guns Away From Peter King” bill, and more. “The conventional wisdom that we can’t do anything is wrong,” said an earnest Cliff Schecter, who works with the coalition Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

Is there a concern that all these different proposals make it difficult to find a focus and easier for NRA-backed lawmakers and lobbyists to stop all of them? “At this stage, it’s important for there to be a number of ideas on the table,” said Arkadi Gerney, an advisor to Mayor Michael Bloomberg on the issue. “The strategy to come around key ideas and move that forward can come later, at this point it’s helpful to demand more conversation, more debate, more analysis.” As Rep. Quigley noted, there were no hearings on the issue in Washington all of last year. “There is no debate right now,” he said. Perhaps that’s a place to start.

…Mayors Against Illegal Guns sends along a poll from Frank Luntz, of all people, showing support for common sense gun safety regulations even among NRA members. But the leadership doesn’t agree with the rank and file on this one.

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David Dayen

David Dayen