Despite a strong push for tighter gun restrictions by the White House and others, common ground continues to elude lawmakers, even in the wake of the December massacre at a Connecticut elementary school that left 20 children dead and a nation horrified.
With a ban on assault weapons all but certain to lack the necessary votes, gun control advocates are hoping that Congress will at least consider stronger background checks and a crackdown on gun trafficking. But in spite of polls that show overwhelming support for such measures, those, too, will be a struggle.
Democrats and Republicans have sharp differences, and geography and social culture divides Democrats. Even debating the issue is uncomfortable for members of the president’s party who face re-election in rural and conservative states where gun ownership is high.
“It’s the worst of all possible worlds,” said Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University and an expert on Congress. “You’re compounding two sources of potential gridlock.”
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The Democratic-majority Senate is expected to consider gun legislation when it returns April 8 from a two-week spring recess, and it will be a challenge in a chamber where it takes 60 votes to get most anything done.
“Any measure, apple pie or motherhood, would have trouble passing the Senate,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, where 20 children and six adults were slain in Newtown. “The opposition is relentless and ruthless.”
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives, meanwhile, has shown little enthusiasm for strong action, and in fact, many would prefer to loosen gun restrictions. On Thursday, at the same time Vice President Joe Biden, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and families of the Newtown, Conn., shooting victims were making an emotional plea for new laws, the House was quietly approving legislation that included four gun-rights provisions.
There’s probably little anyone can do to change the equation.
“It’s very political,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “In many parts of the country, people are strong advocates for the Second Amendment. In other parts, the emphasis is more on gun control.”
A March 7 poll by Quinnipiac University in Connecticut showed that 88 percent of respondents nationwide supported universal background checks, including 85 percent of gun owners.
But gun-rights backers also signaled that background checks, though popular with the public, will not enjoy universal support.
“I just got back from Wyoming, and people are very concerned that universal background checks lead to a national gun registry,” said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo. “People are opposed to it.”
National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre told a group of conservatives in Washington this month that universal background checks, which he once supported, were a "placebo" that "won’t make anyone safer anywhere" and would burden lawful gun owners.
Gun control advocacy groups are well aware of the schism and will be active in key states during Congress’ spring recess. They plan petition drives, press events and panel discussions with law enforcement officials, university presidents and survivors of gun violence, tailored toward lawmakers they consider reachable.
Supporters of universal background checks believe they can succeed if they frame the issue as one about keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, and not taking away anyone else’s.
“If you explain to the hardest-core gun enthusiasts that no one is going to take their gun away . . . very few people are going to vote against you for voting on that bill,” said Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group founded by Bloomberg that includes 900 mayors.
But they face a well-organized, powerful lobby that includes gun manufacturers and the NRA. The group and its allies frame the issue as restricting the ability of law-abiding citizens to protect themselves and their families, a strategy that has been very successful in the two decades since the original assault weapons ban passed Congress.
They scored a small but significant victory Thursday when Congress tucked into a six-month funding bill several measures that would make some temporary gun rights provisions permanent.
Among them: A broad definition of antique guns that can be imported into the United States, and a provision barring the government from asking gun stores to take physical inventory of their stock to know when guns have been stolen. The government is also prohibited from studying what guns are most commonly used by criminals and where they came from.
“I think you’ve seen the NRA’s effectiveness,” said former Rep. Vic Fazio, a California Democrat who voted for the original assault weapons ban and narrowly won re-election in 1994, the year his party lost control of the House. “It’s become a party-line issue for the Republicans.”
The numbers appear to work against gun control supporters. Earlier in the week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said that a ban on assault weapons would have a hard time getting even 40 votes in a chamber where Democrats control 55 seats. A measure to ban large ammunition clips is expected to have a tough time as well.
“It divides the Democrats,” Binder said. “No party leader really wants to highlight divisions in the party.”
Brian Malte, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said that wavering lawmakers may not be revealing their true intentions before they get a chance to talk the issue through with their constituents.
“When it’s time to vote, it could be very different,” Malte said. “What somebody may be signaling now may not be what they’re going to do.”
There had been small hints of agreement, but talks have broken down.
One of the Senate’s more conservative members, Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn, has been working with one of the chamber’s more liberal stalwarts, New York Democrat Charles Schumer, on language for background checks that could be acceptable to both sides.
It isn’t clear when or if a window of opportunity might open. It was thought that the scale of the public shock and horror over the Newtown rampage could make this time different. Malte said he’s seen more people volunteer for the Brady Campaign than at any time in the 17 years he’s been there. Glaze said the mayors group has dozens of organizers scattered around a dozen states. Both said that they would continue to press for change, whether Congress acts soon or not.
“Regrettably, this problem is not going away,” Glaze said. “And neither are we.”