While tragedies like the mass murder in a Colorado movie theater once spurred congressional action to control guns, the reaction on Capitol Hill this time has been virtual silence.
Republicans historically oppose limits on the rights of gun owners. Democrats have come to view the issue as a political loser for them even as recent election results suggest the influence of the National Rifle Association has been overstated.
“Democrats have decided, I think wrongly politically and morally, that it’s only an issue they can lose on,” said Daniel Webster, co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.
Charles Schumer of New York, the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat who as a U.S. representative led the successful 1994 fight in the House to ban 19 military-style assault weapons, said there isn’t much point in pushing for new laws restricting guns these days. “We see the power of the NRA around here,” he told reporters yesterday.
‘Weapons of War’
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada offered scant encouragement yesterday after a fellow Democrat, New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, proposed banning the type of 100-round ammunition drum recovered at the scene of the Colorado shooting. Lautenberg called such magazines “the tools of mass murderers.”
Reid counseled gun-control supporters to be “patient” after the Colorado tragedy and “wait and see how this plays out.”
Most Democrats say they aren’t trying anymore. The NRA’s “political muscle” has “silenced pro-gun-control voices even to the point where we can’t have a reasonable discussion about reasonable measures to try to take, really, weapons of war off the streets,” said Representative Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat who, in his 2010 election campaign, favored tightening registration requirements for gun show dealers.
The legislative reluctance comes as gun ownership in the U.S. has declined from 54 percent of households in 1977 to one- third in 2010, according to the Violence Policy Center, a gun- control advocacy group in Washington.
In the Senate, a bloc of 27 Democrats have joined with Republicans as formidable opponents to recent gun-control initiatives. In 2009, they approved allowing checked guns on Amtrak rail cars and easing restrictions on guns in national parks.
The NRA derives its influence in part from its grade ratings of congressional lawmakers, which it sends to its members. Also, the group spent more than $7.2 million on contributions to congressional election campaigns in 2010.
Some say that the group’s influence in campaigns is overstated. The NRA isn’t the political kingmaker that lawmakers have come to fear, said Robert Spitzer, an author of four books on gun control, including “The Politics of Gun Control.”
“The NRA’s actual political track record of defeating people who would otherwise win isn’t very good,” Spitzer said.
The hands off approach by Democrats on the issue stems partly from the fact that the party’s loss of control of Congress in the 1994 midterm election was blamed on a semiautomatic weapons ban passed earlier that year. It has become an article of faith among Democrats since then that passage of gun control measures leads to election losses.
Two months before the 1994 election, Congress passed a 10- year ban on assault weapons and then-President Bill Clinton signed it. Clinton, in his 2004 memoir, attributed the Democrats’ midterm loss to the gun issue.
Five years later, Vice President Al Gore cast a tie- breaking Senate vote on legislation to restrict sales at gun shows before losing the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush, a strong supporter of gun rights.
“There’s a lot of mythology out there” about the power of the NRA, said Dan Gross, president of the Washington-based Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun-control advocacy group.
Most recently, Senator Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, survived a 2010 onslaught of NRA spending. In 2008, Obama won 11 of the 13 states where the group ran attack ads, including Colorado, Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania, according to the Brady Campaign.
The NRA declined to comment. “NRA believes that now is the time for families to grieve and for the community to heal,” said Andrew Arulanandam, director of public affairs.
The American Prospect magazine analyzed NRA political spending and endorsements over the past four election cycles and concluded “it’s almost impossible to locate any kind of impact of the NRA’s actions,” said the author, Paul Waldman.
The NRA spreads spending to more than 200 House races in each election, diluting its influence. The typical contribution to a House candidate was about $2,500, including both primary and general-election contributions. Spending in a competitive House race can run to about $1 million.
In the Senate, the NRA’s typical contribution is $5,000, accounting for an even smaller share of candidate spending. In the last four Senate elections, the NRA spent more than $100,000 on 22 Senate races. The group’s favored candidate won 10 times and lost 12 times.
Until recent decades, gun massacres prompted federal legislation to tighten access rights.
The first modern U.S. gun law was passed in New York in 1911. The law restricted access to handguns after an attempt to assassinate the city’s mayor, William Gaynor.
The early 1930s, gangland crime sprees of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow and bank robber “Pretty Boy” Floyd prompted the National Firearms Act of 1934. The Gun Control Act of 1968 was precipitated by the assassinations that year of Senator and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy and civil rights advocate Martin Luther King Jr.
Senate Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois said he couldn’t recall any real discussion of gun-control legislation after former Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona was shot and wounded last year while meeting with constituents in Tucson.
“If one of our own is shot point-blank in the head at a town meeting that certainly should rouse the conscience of members of Congress to talk in honest terms about how to make this a safer nation,” he said.
Polls show support for gun-control measures. Eighty-seven percent of Americans support background checks on private sales of guns, including sales at gun shows, according to an April 2008 poll by Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research.
Sixty-two percent of U.S. adults say it is more important to allow the government to ban the sale of semi-automatic assault weapons than it is to protect the rights of gun owners to purchase any guns they want, according to a June 2011 Time poll.
Still, Congress hasn’t followed with legislation in recent years. Bush allowed the assault weapons ban to lapse in 2004 and there’s been little momentum for renewing it. James Holmes, the alleged Colorado shooter, had purchased an AR-15 assault rifle, which had been outlawed before 2004.
“Democrats are thinking: Why are we going to take the political pain when it’s going to be very difficult to get through the House and partially in the Senate?” said Joshua Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence in Washington.
In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that Americans have a right to own guns for self-defense and hunting. Spitzer said this also feeds into lawmakers’ reticence.
Spitzer also said there is an “asymmetry” between gun- rights supporters and gun-control advocates. “It’s a case of a small, highly motivated minority that’s done pretty well over an apathetic majority,” he said.
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