How Gun Control Ends: Not With A Bang, But A Whimper

Here’s a hard truth: all the emotion and outrage and sadness that followed the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting may make almost no difference in federal gun control laws.

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Michelle McLoughlin / REUTERS

Lighted angels hang from a tree in Monroe, Conn., Jan. 14, 2013, on the one-month anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown that killed 20 children and six staff members.

Here’s a hard truth: all the emotion and outrage and sadness that followed the Dec. 14 shooting of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook elementary school may make almost no difference in federal gun control laws. How little is the Hill going to do on gun control? As things stand, Congress may not even pass two gun control measures that even some elements of the powerful gun lobby have suggested they could support. But if post-Sandy Hook gun control measures are badly wounded, they’re not finished yet. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle insist there’s still a chance to do a deal; here’s the state of play.

After months of negotiation, four bills came to the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, reflecting President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden’s agenda for post-Sandy Hook action. The first makes straw purchasing and gun trafficking a felony and boosts the penalties for those crimes. Another would expand background checks to include private sales at gun shows and elsewhere. A third would boost spending on school safety programs. And lastly there’s a push to ban assault weapons and large ammunition magazines.

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The gun trafficking measure passed out of committee last week with the backing of Democrats and one Republican, the ranking minority member Chuck Grassley. It is likely to pass the full Senate next week and should eventually pass the House and become law. But it has less to do with Sandy Hook than with Fast and Furious. Over the last two years Republicans alleged that the White House and Justice Department conspired in a botched gun running investigation in Arizona called Fast and Furious. It was a whacky theory and was debunked by a widely praised Inspector General’s report. But it’s now hard for Republicans to oppose a bill that makes gun running a felony and boosts penalties for the crime after they made such a big deal of the case.

The most extreme Fast and Furious conspiracy theorists said the administration allowed gun running on the U.S.-Mexican border to build support for federal gun control. So the bill’s passage would be a rare example of true irony (or if you’re a fact-free type, proof the conspiracy theorists were right all along). In any case, gun backers may not have much to worry about. The three other bills, which nominally are intended to address specific elements of the Sandy Hook massacre, were delayed in committee last week and face an uncertain future the Senate floor and in the House.

The assault weapons ban is already near death, and so is the ban on large capacity magazines. Even Senate Majority leader Harry Reid has declined to support a ban and voted against the 1994 bill that expired in 2004. Grassley and other Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans are already out against both the assault weapons ban and the prohibition on large capacity magazine clips.

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The other two measures remain possible in part because at times gun lobbyists have said they could support versions of them in principle. But they are in trouble. The school safety bill, introduced by Barbara Boxer of California, was originally going to spend $800 million to increase surveillance and deploy National Guard troops in schools, among other measures. That price tab made it a near impossibility as Congress wages non-stop battles over the budget. The bill likely to emerge from committee this week will be cheaper, and privately Republicans say they expect it to pass the Senate. But ultimately it will require cuts in other programs to pay for it; the GOP has suggested cutting education programs like one on financial literacy to help offset the cost. Democrats are balking.

The most promising post-Sandy Hook measure is an effort to expand background checks. At the moment, only licensed sellers must run a check on a buyer to make sure he isn’t barred from owning a gun because of a criminal background, mental illness or other reasons. But many guns are sold privately at gun shows and elsewhere. Democrat Charles Schumer of New York and Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma have been negotiating a bill but broke last week over record keeping. Under current law, licensed sellers must keep a record of what guns they sell. No identifying information on the buyer is kept. Schumer wants the same rule for private sales.

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Senate Republicans say any measure to expand record keeping, even sell-side information, will never pass the House. They argue getting background checks at gun shows even without record keeping is a big win and Democrats should settle for that. They also argue that the bill’s other major provision would be a win. Though all states are required to provide the federal government with sell-side information, only 13 do. The bill would provide grant money to incentivize the other 37 states to comply too.

A Schumer bill with the expanded record keeping will pass out of committee this week without Republican support. Republicans expect to substitute a bill on the floor of the Senate with the record keeping removed, but the expanded background check and the reporting incentives in place. That bill could pass the Senate with bipartisan support, giving it at least an eventual conference with whatever limited bill the House passes.

If Congress ultimately produces a combined bill that turns gun trafficking into a felony, expands background checks to private sales and spends some money on school safety, perhaps the public outcry after Sandy Hook won’t have been entirely fruitless. But there are plenty in Washington who expect next to nothing to come of the massacre at Newtown, and believe that if compromise can barely survive the committee process it will certainly be doomed in the full Congress.

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