Up until 12/14, mass shootings had generated barely a blip of activism dedicated to enacting legislation to reduce gun violence. Indeed, no major national gun-control laws had been seriously considered since the election debacle of 1994, a devastating congressional loss for Democrats that some strategists said was partly a consequence of the assault weapons ban passed just before the election that year and the Brady law requiring background checks passed in 1993. Democratic candidates, high and low, took care either to avoid talking about guns or made a point of noting they were hunters and otherwise backers of gun rights.
Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association, the gun industry's mouthpiece, and other gun-rights advocates made tremendous inroads at the state level, intimidated political candidates who might otherwise have backed gun-control legislation, celebrated the expiration of the assault weapons ban in 2004 as well as laws that hamstring the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and restrict maintenance and use of data about firearms transactions, and generally threw its weight around with great success. Those who openly challenged the NRA became ever quieter.
But, unlike mass shootings at Virginia Tech, in Tucson and in Aurora, the slaughter of first-graders and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown has produced a shift. Predictions that the furor over the massacre would vanish after a few weeks haven't come true. On the contrary. Activist groups like the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, whose ad appears above, have been joined by others. Former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head and nearly killed in a mass shooting two years ago, has joined her former astronaut husband in speaking publicly about the need for new gun measures. They have initiated their own group, Americans for Responsible Solutions.
And poll after poll has shown that the majority of Americans, including the majority of firearms owners, support new gun-control legislation. This is especially true of proposals to ensure that every gun-buyer is subject to a background check. A Quinnipiac Poll released Thursday shows 92 percent of Americans favor universal background checks, with smaller majorities favoring other legislation, including bans on high-capacity magazines and a renewed assault weapons ban.
Many of President Barack Obama's progressive supporters have been pleased with his increasingly active role in efforts to get new gun-control proposals passed. That's a bit of a turnaround from widespread progressive criticism over how health care coverage and changes economic policy were handled in the president's first term. Sam Stein reports:
"This is the lesson we learned over the first four years," said a senior administration official. "It is not sufficient to sit around a table in Washington, D.C., to pass these things. You have to have an inside strategy, working with members of Congress, and you also have to have an outside strategy to make sure that members of Congress, particularly the Republicans who have been recalcitrant, are aware of the public desire for these outcomes."But, as Stein reports, even though progressive leaders back the assault weapons ban, they haven't made it a must-do piece of legislation without whose passage the campaign for new gun-control restrictions will be seen as a failure. A key reason is that a renewed assault weapons ban faces opposition from perhaps as many as 10 Democrats in the Senate and an adamantly opposed Republican majority in the House. Even many strong supporters of a renewed ban are skeptical it can pass. Please continue reading below the fold about strategy to get new gun legislation enacted.
Seeing the president making the case for an assault weapons ban "is important to the advocates on the issue," said the official. "It is as important to our end goal, which is to get it done."
"I'm not making the case against the assault weapons ban," said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "If you talk to policy experts, what a lot of them would tell you is that in terms of real impact, the one to have is criminal background checks ... In this case, the very effective thing is also the very popular thing."The NRA's arguments that universal background checks won't do any good because criminals get their guns illegally seems not to have swayed anyone who didn't already agree. Nobody argues that a single law will stop all gun violence. But the NRA's claims that no criminals try to buy their guns from licensed dealers is disproved by statistics from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). More than 700,000 ineligible would-be gun-buyers have been stopped by background checks in the past decade.
The NRA has also sought to undermine support for background checks on the grounds that the government is not prosecuting enough people who lie on the questionnaire they must fill out when seeking to buy a gun. That's true. But it's no excuse for not making background checks universal. Rather it's a call to step up those prosecutions, especially prosecutions of straw purchasers who traffic guns to people legally barred from owning them.
Timing of new gun legislation could be crucial. Getting the most popular proposals through Congress should be done first, saving the bills that will face the strongest opposition, such as a new assault weapons ban, for later. That tactic achieves two things: builds activist momentum on a foundation of victories; and helps keep the matter from disappearing off the public's radar.
Universal background checks are obviously the place to begin. Such legislation might be paired with repeal of the Tiahrt Amendments that weaken government efforts to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them. I'll have more to say about that soon.