Headed for a Showdown on Gun Control

Posted December 17th, 2012 at 9:13 pm (UTC+0)
11 comments

U.S. flag flies at half staff outside Newtown High School in Connecticut Dec. 16, 2012, as President Obama speaks inside at a memorial for the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, which claimed 27 dead, including 20 school children. Photo: AP

Real Shift or just Another Tragedy?
Little kids. First graders. Gunned down in their school in Newtown, Connecticut. There is a something haunting about this incident that just seems too horrible to even grapple with. A town is shattered and a nation is in shock just as Christmas approaches. Sorry, this is such a downer but I don’t know how anyone can move on without first acknowledging the horror and pain. We all know the debates are coming about gun control and mental health and securing schools. All of that is important and must be dealt with. But those images of Newtown and so many broken hearts just cry out for us to stop for a moment and reflect about life and kids and what kind of society we want. Mass shootings are all bad, but this one targeting young kids seems to be hitting an especially raw nerve.

The Debate Ahead
Already some members of the Democratic Party are calling for Congress to revisit the assault weapons ban, passed into law in 1994 but allowed to expire 10 years later. Gun control advocates have been on the defensive since the 1990s and public polls have shown a gradual decline in support for either banning or severely restricting gun purchases.

Is President Obama, shown here at a memorial service Dec. 16, 2012, for those killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut, ready to take on the powerful gun lobby? Photo: AP

However, those who support gun control are expected to make a new push in the wake of the Connecticut massacre and they may have a new ally in President Barack Obama. With his re-election victory, Mr. Obama no longer has to worry about angering the pro-gun lobby in a future election. Throughout his first term, gun control advocates were disappointed that the president didn’t speak out more strongly in favor of tighter laws, especially in the wake of the 2011 Tucson, Arizona shooting that included the wounding of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the movie theatre shooting in Aurora, Colorado, earlier this year.
Mr. Obama now says it is time for the country to act to prevent these kinds of mass shootings, though he seemed to be careful to not be specific about what he might support, at least for the moment.

Power of the Gun Lobby
A head-on attempt to restrict all guns in America would probably be doomed to failure. Start with Republican control of the House of Representatives and the fact that Democrats do not have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, even with the addition of two seats for the next Congress.
We may get to a renewed debate on whether to reinstate a ban on assault style weapons, though even that will be difficult with the NRA-led gun lobby that has effectively put the fear of God into many politicians in the South and West. It’s kind of a zero-sum game for them—they oppose virtually any and all gun control measures because they have convinced their followers that the real aim of gun control advocates is to confiscate guns, even though many politicians realize that is not the case. But Republicans have enough congressional power based in the southern and western states that will probably be able to block any serious attempt to significantly strengthen gun laws.
Don’t forget that Republican House districts tend to be more conservative now, in part because Republicans had a huge advantage in the redrawing of congressional districts based on the 2010 national census, a process known as re-districting. Because so many more House seats are solidly Republican, most of the incumbents in these districts are more fearful of Republican primary challengers than of Democratic opponents in the general election. Since most Republican challengers come from the right in primaries, incumbent Republican House members will want to make sure no one can outflank them on the right. And gun ownership is one of those issues that is dear to the heart of conservatives around the country, so few Republicans in conservative districts are likely to have much interest in serious gun control legislation.
The gun issue is one of those that clearly reflects the political polarization in the country. People in urban areas often say they don’t understand why so many Americans want to own guns and fend off any efforts to limit their access. In my travels to the Rocky Mountain West, I’ve found many people there who see owning guns as a major part of their lives and cannot understand what they perceive as an anti-gun mentality coming from folks back east.

Out with the Militia
In the late 1990s, I traveled to Montana to do a series of reports on the militia movement. We were looking at the growth of groups of people who armed themselves and did military-style drills to prepare for the Apocalypse, or the government trying to confiscate their guns, or even a takeover by the United Nations (these folks insisted all were real possibilities).
One day a few of these guys offered to take me target shooting up in the mountains of Western Montana, outside of the town of Missoula. I didn’t have much experience with guns, so it was a chance to see what it felt like to shoot pistols and rifles with a group of men who were obviously enthusiastic about their weapons.
I do recall trying a version of the AR-15, a semi-automatic assault-style rifle similar to the one used in Newtown and in several other mass shootings in recent years. The thing was light and had very little kick when you fired it. It was not explosively loud like a high-powered hunting rifle. It was easy to repeatedly pull the trigger and fire off rounds that seemed to hit the target. All I could think of was all that killing power in a light weapon with little kickback. I remember thinking at the time how someone bent on causing mass destruction would find it deceptively easy to wield this gun and fire at will.
So we can expect the gun control debate to intensify in the months ahead. But many Democrats have vivid memories of 1994 when Republicans effectively campaigned against gun control efforts, which led to Republicans taking over both the House of Representatives and the Senate. From that point on many Democrats, especially those from the South, Midwest and West became increasingly, how shall we say, gun-shy about the power of the gun lobby and tried to de-emphasize the issue as part of their own strategy of political survival.
The question is will the Newtown, Connecticut massacre be of such a different magnitude that it will actually cause a shift in the debate? It’s too early to know, but recent history suggests that the incidents at Columbine, Colorado, in 1999, Virginia Tech in 2007, Tucson and Aurora were not able by themselves to effect a major shift in the gun control issue.

Avoiding the Fiscal Cliff

House Speaker John Boehner, shown here Dec. 12, 2012, makes a counter-offer on raising taxes on the wealthy in negotiations with President Obama. Photo; AP

There are some small glimmers of hope on avoiding the so-called fiscal cliff, the combination of about $500 trillion in tax hikes and budget cuts that go into effect in January that experts fear could plunge the U.S. economy back in to recession.
John Boehner, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, appears willing to budge a bit on tax hikes for the wealthy. But his definition of who is wealthy does not jive yet with President Obama’s. The president and his Democratic allies in Congress want to see the tax rates rise on those making more than $250,000 a year, while Mr. Boehner has offered to raise taxes on those making more than $1 million.
It’s an encouraging sign, but I think the Republicans will now expect the president to put forward something more substantial on budget cuts. Specifically, they would like to see what Mr. Obama and Democrats in Congress would be willing to do to restrain the growth in entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Their reasoning is that for years Republicans have been clobbered in elections because they dared to propose cuts in these programs while Democrats positioned themselves as protectors of a popular government safety net for the old and the poor.
The next step may be the president revealing his hand a bit more on just what he would be willing to do to slow the growth of these programs, and to what degree liberal allies in Congress would squawk about it, further complicating efforts to reach a compromise in the next few weeks.

11 Responses to “Headed for a Showdown on Gun Control”

  1. [...] pastLos Angeles TimesMediator: Mom Didn't Like to Leave Gunman AloneABC NewsCBC.ca -Voice of America (blog) -CNN (blog)all 36,622 news [...]

  2. I noticed that prayer in schools did not apply in this shooting case. Also, I want to hear about Cars, Alcohol, Drugs, ‘Mainstreaming’ and Mental Health in the discussion. Do we have to have 20+ students killed to merit the coming discussion on Guns? And leave behind a discussion of some ‘major league’ killers’? Instead of spending their time destroying America through bankruptcy, perhaps the leaders in Washington could find time to solve this ‘killing field’ that crops up far to often.

  3. Tom Brown says:

    What a hysterical bunch of know nothings. Gun control is just another government grab for power over every day life. Every country that has given up their rights, lives in fear of their government. You can look to two places to find out why all this happens. …

  4. If you can’t ban guns, at least raise taxes on ammunition. By 100 per cent or even 500 per cent. The U.S. would be a safer place and the gun lobby would have less reason to be up in arms.

    Excuse the pun.

    But the whole idea of taxing ammunition has an excellent pedigree. Back in Dec 1999, a very provincial Barack Obama, at the time no more than an Illinois state senator, was reported by the Chicago Defender newspaper to say that he was in favor of increasing federal taxes by 500 percent on the sale of firearm, ammunition – weapons he says are most commonly used in firearm deaths. The report went on to say that Obama made the proposal at an “anti-gun rally,” where he proposed a host of other gun control policies.

    The report fed into the fear psychosis induced by America’s politically powerful National Rifle Association (NRA), which claimed, back in 2009 that the then newly elected President Obama would “increase federal taxes on guns and ammunition by 500 percent”. At the time, the NRA added that it was all an insidious part of what it called “Obama’s 10-Point Plan to ‘Change’ the Second Amendment.” That is Americans’ 221-year-old constitutional right to bear arms.

    The Annenberg Policy Center debunked the claims back in June 2009, saying it “found no record of Obama introducing legislation to this effect while in the Illinois state Senate, or in the U.S. Senate. Now, after further research, we can find no record of the president, or any other administration official, saying that an increase in the ammunition tax is part of his current agenda either.”

    So far, so depressing. If Obama believes more guns in a system kill more people, why doesn’t he do something about it? Realpolitik? Perhaps. If so, surely the best way forward is to raise tax on ammunition to levels that would make buyers stop and think and probably neglect to buy. Prohibitive taxation has worked in many countries, especially with cigarettes and alcohol. Why should guns and the ammunition that makes them dangerous be off-limits?

    It is important to say at this point, that increased taxes on ammunition are hardly a bold new idea. In 1993, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan proposed a 50 per cent tax-hike on most handgun ammunition, and one that came in at more than 10,000 per cent on slightly more lethal arsenal.

    It did not go through.

    Somewhat dispiritingly, President Obama’s remarks (on Wednesday, Dec 19) that a “majority of Americans” back changes to some laws seems fairly anodyne. At most, Obama is proposing a renewal of an assault weapons ban (which existed 1994-2004), limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines and an end to loopholes allowing gun purchases with no background checks. But this would not mean an end to private, no-questions-asked sales at gun shows across the country. This would not take the estimated 300 million guns currently owned by Americans out of the system.

    The only option? Tax ammunition to levels that make it unaffordable to buy, practice with and actively use a gun.

  5. SeekTheTruth says:

    It is easy to jump to emotional conclusions on these very tragic events. Many comparing it to Columbine 1999…That event had MANY inaccurate reports every few hours for days as well…JUST LIKE THIS ONE!

    Well contrary to what the Mainstream Media wants people to hear..Columbine was NOT supposed to be carried out with guns as the weapon, but with Several Home Made Bombs that failed to detonate.

    USA Today Reported in April 2009 Ten Years Later that Some Officials Lied, and or Mislead America and Covered up their own failures to act on concerns and complaints on these two before the terrible day of the attack.

    They blamed Guns Too even though they knew it was not guns but their own failures to respond to called in concerns prior to this tragedy!!!

    Right in the middle of the Clinton 1994 – 2004 Ban of Assault Weapons (and Scary Looking Accessories),That ban did nothing to curb gun violence and again Columbine Attackers plans only included guns as a backup in case of failure of their many planted bombs inside of the school and inside of their car to kill police that responded. They did not use any AR15 or military style assault rifles with high capacity magazines.

  6. rob says:

    NRA stand tall, protect our constitutional right to be armed. Make it easier for citizens to be armed in public. Stop the harrassment of law abiding citizens by the liberal socialist governments. Be harsh on criminals, put them all into prison or hang them, support your law abiding citizens.

    Regarding mental illness, we need to distinguish between real mental illness and fake mental illnesses designed to enrich the psychiatric and pharmaceutical industries. Truly dangerous mentally ill persons who are a danger to others should not be armed.

    Gun owners, protect your weapons. The mother of the Connecticut killer failed in her duty to do this.

  7. John Doe says:

    That’s a dangerous game you’re playing with, allowing and even encouraging the government to cheat and bend the rules to do what you want.
    Set that habit and see what happens to something else you do find important, such as your right to disagree.
    IF this is the course of action, then let’s do it the right way–repeal the second amendment and get on with it. If you’re so careless with the constitution, you’ll see that soon none of it’s protections mean anything.

  8. Jeanne Deaux says:

    If prohibiting guns and ammunition will reduce violence, please tell us how well the prohibition of cocaine and heroin works to keep drugs off the streets.

  9. Jeanne Deaux says:

    Couldn’t you have found a less flattering picture of Boehner?

  10. David W. says:

    I BELIEVE WE ARE LOOKING TO SOLVE THIS PROBLEM USING THE WRONG APPROACH. GUNS ARE NOTHING MORE THAN A TOOL TO ACCOMPLISH A GIVEN TASK. THE TASK IS THE PROBLEM. MENTAL HEALTH OF SOME OF OUR CITIZENS IS THE REAL ISSUE. HOW LONG WILL WE TURN OUR BACKS ON THE PEOPLE THAT NEED HELP, I SEE THEM SLEEPING ON SIDEWALKS, PEOPLE WALK BY AS IF THEY DON’T EXIST. IF WE TAKE AWAY ONE TOOL DO YOU REALLY BELIEVE THAT WILL END THE PROBLEM. THE PROBLEM WILL STILL EXIST.

Jim Malone

Jim Malone

After a stint in the Peace Corps in Swaziland, Jim joined VOA in 1983 as a reporter and anchor on English broadcasts to Africa.  He served as East Africa correspondent, then covered Congress in the early 1990′s.   Since 1995, Jim has served as VOA national correspondent responsible for coverage of U.S. politics, elections, the Supreme Court and Justice Department.  Jim has been involved in VOA’s election coverage since the 1984 presidential campaign and has co-anchored live VOA broadcasts of numerous national political conventions, candidate debates and election night coverage.

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