Nothing ever stays the same in politics, and that is true when it comes to the politics of guns, as backers of gun control find themselves in the distinct minority in Congress now, a big switch from 20 years ago. Whether anything changes in the wake of last week’s mass school shooting in Connecticut is what we will find out in coming months.
There were some calls for more gun controls in recent days in the Congress, but only from a very small group of more liberal Democrats who have long been in favor of such moves.
“If now is not the time to have a serious discussion about gun control and the epidemic of gun violence plaguing our society, I don’t know when is,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York.
“How many more innocent people have to die senseless deaths until we enact stricter rules that address unfettered access to guns?” said Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts.
But while those quotes are sure to aggravate those Americans who favor gun rights, most Democrats seemed to stay away from overt calls for changes in gun laws in the immediate aftermath of the Newtown mass shooting; if you take a look around the Congress right now, it isn’t hard to understand why.
Even when Democrats fully controlled the House and Senate in the first two years of the Obama Administration, there was no move to enact gun controls – instead the votes in the House and Senate were overwhelmingly tilted in favor of gun rights supporters, and they remain that way.
There was the vote in May of 2009 when the Senate voted 67-29 in favor of a plan that would let people carry loaded weapons in national parks and wildlife refuges.
Democrats then tried to embarrass Republicans by forcing a vote on that same provision in the House, and they lost big – 279-147 – almost a two thirds super-majority in the Congress in favor of people being allowed to carry a weapon in national parks and wildlife refuges, as long as local laws allowed that.
It has been very interesting to have a front row seat in Washington, D.C. to watch how things have changed in the halls of Congress since the Brady Handgun law was enacted in 1993, a fight that stemmed from the aftermath of the assassination attempt on President Reagan, which left Press Secretary James Brady horribly wounded.
After finally getting the Brady instant background check system approved, Democrats in 1994 then went one step further and pushed through a ten year ban on the sale of certain assault weapons, as they capitalized on public anger over several mass killings, including one in California where a man shot up a school playground and killed five kids.
At that time, Democrats had Republicans on the defensive over gun control.
But the 1994 assault weapon ban proved to be a political bridge too far, leading to the defeat of a number of Democrats in the 1994 elections, as Republicans took charge of the Congress.
When the Columbine shootings took place in 1999, Democrats rallied behind plans to close what’s known as the “gun show loophole,” but they didn’t have the votes to push ahead on that in either the House or Senate, and that remains true today.
That assault weapons ban expired in 2004 without much of whimper from the Congress, as Democrats knew they didn’t have the votes to renew the ban.
Cound public sentiment change after the Connecticut shootings? Sure it could. Just as Congress went from enacting gun controls twenty years ago to a very pro-gun rights stance now, anything is possible.
“These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change,” the President said in Newtown, Connecticut on Sunday night, though the White House hasn’t really laid out what the President would like to see changed in terms of gun laws.
Other than a change after the Virginia Tech shootings which expanded gun purchase background check restrictions on those who suffer from mental illness, not much has changed in the Congress on gun control in many years, as Democrats have shied away from battles with the National Rifle Association and watched the tide run away from them on the issue.
“I agree, now is not the time to talk about gun laws – the time for that conversation was long before all those kids in Connecticut died,” said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), who was elected after her husband was killed and her son was wounded in a mass shooting on the Long Island Railroad in 1993.
In recent days, McCarthy vowed to “embarrass” President Obama by building a public campaign to call for action on gun violence, talking about joining ranks with the Mayor of New York City.
Judging from the emails I’m getting from both sides in recent days, it won’t be an easy debate to conduct, no matter what the President proposes in coming weeks.
Will it focus on gun laws? On large ammunition clips? Semi-automatic weapons? Assault rifles? Mental health?
“We must strive for a better nation,” said Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT) after he left the Newtown speech by the President on Sunday.
But such statements mean very different things to different people when it comes to gun politics in America.