The top Republican with jurisdiction over firearms regulations in the 113th Congress has shut down talk of gun control in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., massacre, a sign that the House will be the largest obstacle to overhauling federal gun laws.
Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia told CQ Roll Call on Tuesday that he does not favor tightening controls on firearms, such as banning assault weapons or high-capacity clips, after 27 people, including 20 children, were killed by a shooter in Newtown last week.
“We’re going to take a look at what happened there and what can be done to help avoid it in the future, but gun control is not going to be something that I would support,” he said.
Goodlatte, who has an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, has been elected by his conference to chair the House Judiciary Committee next year, where he will have jurisdiction over firearms regulations.
His comments are the most unequivocal statement yet from a high-ranking Republican shutting down the idea of gun control after what happened in Connecticut.
They come as top Democrats, led by President Barack Obama, have promised gun control legislation as a reaction to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, declined to answer when asked in front of his office Tuesday whether he would also rebuff gun control efforts next year.
His spokesman, however, said later that Republicans will weigh proposals if Obama puts them on the table.
“We all join President Obama in mourning the victims of this awful tragedy and we will stand with their families and friends,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said. “If the president has specific ideas in mind, we will listen. But right now our focus should be on the victims, their families and their friends.”
The reserved tone from Boehner’s office indicates the sensitivity with which the issue of gun control is being handled, particularly in response to the anguish that the deaths of 20 6- and 7-year-old children has wrought on the country.
But the response is also an indication that Boehner, who has an “A” rating from the NRA, is not going to lead one way or the other in the discussion and is certainly not going to rush any legislation to the floor.
Instead, he will wait for Obama to act and wait to see if the feverish public sentiment that has dredged up one of the most sensitive public policy issues will subside, as it did after a movie theater shooting this year in Aurora, Colo., and after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was shot at a constituent event in January 2011.
House Republicans will be forced to engage only if the president pushes the issue, and that is likely to depend on whether public sentiment remains heated.
Given that past, there is skepticism among GOP aides as to whether the calls for action will be sustained or whether they will dwindle as time passes, despite how horrible the Newtown tragedy was.
Obama has been vague so far as well. Speaking at a vigil in Newtown after the shooting, he promised to send legislation to Congress, though he did not specify what kind.
The most definitive statement that could lead to action so far has come from the Senate, where Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California — who is likely to chair that chamber’s Judiciary Committee next year — said she will reintroduce the 1994 ban on some assault weapons that expired in 2004.
But even some Democrats may be wary of treading into gun control territory. Indeed, the saga of the assault weapons ban is itself a cautionary tale for those who want to engage in gun politics.
Then-House Judiciary Chairman Jack Brooks, despite being a pro-NRA Texas Democrat, sponsored the package that included the assault rifle ban and voted for it. He was defeated just two months later, becoming the most senior member at the time to lose re-election. Brooks died earlier this month.
Interestingly enough, the man who defeated Brooks in that election is coming back to Congress next year: Republican Rep. Steve Stockman. On his campaign site, Stockman boasts that he “sponsored a bill eliminating background checks, waiting periods and registration for firearms.”
Not all in the GOP have such a staunch pro-gun record. Some senior Republicans who are currently in office voted for the ban in 1994, namely Reps. Fred Upton of Michigan, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey. Their offices did not respond to requests for comment.
In the meantime, other Republicans are being vague in their statements regarding gun control, indicating that after the sheer horror of Newtown, they are wary of ruling anything out.
Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the incoming Republican Conference secretary, said the discussion should not focus on just one issue.
“There are just evil people in the world and nothing you are going to do is going to prevent evil sometimes from occurring,” she said. “There ought to be a debate on the whole thing that happened, the full complement, not just guns.”
Similarly, Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida, a member of the GOP whip team, said if something can be done, it should, but he declined to name gun bans as a potential solution.
“If we can come to any agreement where we can figure out ways to do that, we should do it. And whether it deals with mental health issues or anything else that would help avoid that situation from happening again, I think that would be a good thing for us to talk about,” he said.
For its part, the NRA released a statement that said: “The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.”