- The Washington Times - Monday, December 17, 2012

The last time either chamber of Congress took on gun control was in 2004, when the Senate considered a pro-gun bill, ended up adding three major gun control measures — then killed it, saying the whole thing had become too messy.

For more than a decade, gun rights supporters have held the upper hand in Congress, foiling more restrictions and steadily erasing bans such as carrying guns on Amtrak trains or into national parks.

But now, with the searing memory of 20 slain 6- and 7-year-old students at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., gun control advocates say there is a chance to break the gridlock.

“We are at a fundamentally different place than we have ever been before because the emotional impact of this tragedy dwarfs anything we’ve seen since — probably since 1968,” said Matt Bennett, who worked for a gun control group during that 2004 fight and is now vice president at Third Way, a progressive think tank. “People are reacting as parents, and not as policymakers. We think that pretty much anything is possible at this moment, and this moment isn’t going to go away right away.”

Past shooting sprees have been met regularly with calls for action. The 2002 sniper shootings in the Washington region spurred part of that 2004 Senate debate.

A 1999 Senate debate on trigger locks and closing the gun show loophole, which allows private gun owners to sell without performing background checks on buyers, followed closely behind the 1998 Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo.

But each of those efforts went nowhere. The 1999 bill passed the Senate, but the House refused to take it up.

The 2004 Senate debate ended in a stunning 90-8 vote to defeat the bill — including by its own sponsors.

Lawmakers intended to pass a measure granting gun manufacturers immunity from the spate of lawsuits that cities filed against them, arguing that they were responsible for gun violence. But gun rights supporters attached amendments renewing the so-called assault weapons ban, requiring new guns to be sold with trigger locks and ending the gun show loophole that allowed private citizens to sell without conducting background checks.

With neither side happy, the bill was defeated in the overwhelming vote.

More recent shootings including the 2011 spree at an outdoor town-hall gathering in Tucson, Ariz., held by then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and this summer’s mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., spurred further calls but no action.

Asked what would be different this time, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the impact of this school shooting is deeper.

“I think that it’s hard to imagine people in any near term somehow forgetting the rawness of what happened on Friday,” he told reporters Monday. “It is hard to think about 20 6- and 7-year-olds and what happened to them on Friday and imagine that, in a few weeks or a few months, that pain would not still be incredibly intense and present.”

But Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said gun rights supporters are more active and informed and primed to defend their stance this time, too.

He compared that with the last major, successful gun legislation in the 1990s, when Congress passed and President Clinton signed the assault weapons ban, which outlawed military-looking semi-automatic rifles. That ban lapsed in 2004 — another of the gun rights community’s major victories of the past decade.

“This is not 1993. The world is very different than it was back then. The Internet really wasn’t moving — it was just getting started,” Mr. Van Cleave said.

He also pointed out that nobody ever challenged the assault weapons legislation in court — something that would be much more likely now, given the Supreme Court’s rulings in 2008 and 2010 upholding an individual’s right to bear arms, though still allowing localities to impose reasonable restrictions.

But Mr. Bennett said Democrats who support gun control have become more savvy, too, over the past decade.

He said that after the Columbine shooting “we were still in an old-gun paradigm where Democrats were using some very old and outdated framing around the issue where they were basically saying anyone who owned a gun was culpable for gun crime. They’ve moved away from that sharply in the years since.”

Both sides said they expect part of the renewed debate to focus on what new classes of people should be denied gun ownership. In the Connecticut shooting, news reports have said, the 20-year-old gunman was autistic.

Indeed, the most recent gun rights flare-up was over mental health. Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, tried to attach an amendment to the defense policy bill this month that would have required a ruling by a judge before a veteran could be deemed mentally incompetent to own a gun.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, blocked that effort.

While the Senate has at least held gun control debates over the past decade, the House has not.

In fact, the only gun legislation to emerge from the lower chamber in recent years was a bill to limit firearms manufacturers’ liability. That died in the Senate during the 2004 debate.

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