Taking On the Gun Lobby

Despite Shootings, Passing New Legislation Is Not Easy

Posted December 14, 2007 at 6:17pm

The case for Congress to strengthen gun control laws might seem obvious enough after shootings this month in an Omaha mall and two Colorado churches that left 10 dead.

But despite the December carnage, and the worst mass shooting in U.S. history in April, nobody in the gun control lobby is optimistic. And even though Democrats are in power, they say there’s little chance of Congress taking up their cause.

“I am surprised that there’s not more discussion by the elected and the candidates for that matter about what to do about this rising level of gun violence,” said Paul Helmke, head of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

The seemingly immovable Congress has led gun control advocates to do more lobbying at the state and local level. They also are beefing up their political chops, taking a cue from their chief opposition, political heavyweight National Rifle Association, by endorsing politicians and making campaign donations in an effort to show that gun control can be a winning election issue.

But the NRA isn’t worried.

“I think you’ve seen a realization among lawmakers that more gun control is not the answer, whether from a policy standpoint or a political standpoint,” said Chris Cox, chief lobbyist at the NRA. “Keeping guns out of the hands of

criminals and those mentally defective — it’s not gun control, it’s crime control.”

It hasn’t always been tough for the gun control lobby to find support in Congress.

A 1989 shooting in Stockton, Calif., where a gunman with an AK-45 semiautomatic rifle murdered five children and wounded 29 others was the impetus for the 1994 push for a federal assault weapon ban.

With the Clinton administration’s support, Congress passed the Brady bill, a law that requires gun purchasers to submit to background checks to ensure they do not have a prior criminal record.

That was more than a decade ago — and the last big victory for the gun control lobby. Since then, they’ve been playing defense, as Americans chafed under an attempt to ban handguns. So much so that the groups renamed themselves, from Handgun Inc. to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the Coalition to Ban Hand Guns to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

There was a push after the Columbine High School shootings in April 1999 to close a loophole that allows private dealers at gun shows to sell guns without an ID check, but that was defeated.

The one piece of gun control legislation moving on the Hill, a bill introduced by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) following the Virginia Tech shooting in April, which left 32 dead, has divided the usually unified gun control lobby. The bill would allocate $375 million a year to states so that they can enter more criminal and mental health records into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

The bill, which is supported by the NRA, passed the House, but is now stuck in the Senate Judiciary Committee after Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) put a hold on the bill. Coburn opposes the extra federal funding and doesn’t believe that states would increase compliance even with the extra dollars, he said in a statement.

“We think there is more bad in it than good and we think Coburn’s involvement could make it even worse,” Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center, said.

Rand said the center opposes the bill because it could rearm people who have had mental health issues in the past and give felons the ability to apply to get their gun rights restored. “We just think it is completely contrary to what should be done in response to Virginia Tech,” Rand said, referring to the April shootings at the university.

The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence also has raised objections to the bill.

Josh Horwitz, the coalition’s executive director, called the negotiations on the bill “closed” to the gun control lobby and thinks that Coburn’s involvement could gut the bill.

The Brady Center, however, has been a big supporter of the bill, and believes they can reach an agreement with Coburn. Helmke says he understands the other groups’ concerns, but passing legislation that would make the background check system more complete is important.

“Once we get this bill passed and signed, if we spot problems down the road, if there’s not enough money or the procedures are too burdensome, we can address it,” Helmke said.

Seemingly blocked at the federal level, gun control advocates have since moved to the state and local levels, where they say some of the most progressive gun control legislation is happening. In California, for example, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill requiring that certain handguns sold in the state be equipped to mark each shell, so police can more easily trace them. It was a three-year lobbying campaign that the many of the national gun control groups helped push, including the Brady Center and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

More state and local officials also are getting involved. In March 2006, the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns was formed to address what they call “big gaps” in federal laws and federal enforcement that need to be closed.

“There’s a lot of realization at the state level that guns need to be addressed,” Rand said.

That realization also has translated into the Brady Center upping its efforts at the state and local level. While much has been made of the NRA’s political and grass-roots muscle, the Brady Center is trying to gain a foothold in campaigns as well.

“Elected officials and candidates, a lot of them, are still afraid of the issue,” said Helmke, who himself was mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind., before joining the Brady Center a little more than a year ago. “If talked about particularly in the right way [politicians] are going to pick up votes for people.”

Helmke said the group, whose political action committee doled out just more than $80,000 in the previous election cycle, will be even more involved in 2008.

The Brady Center plans to do more grass-roots outreach as well. “My goal in this context is to get both Democrats and Republicans wanting our endorsement and wanting our help,” Helmke said.