With his gun-control proposals facing an uncertain future in Washington, President Barack Obama is turning attention to state legislatures in an effort to prod Congress into action.
Speaking at the Denver Police Academy yesterday, Obama urged federal lawmakers to follow Colorado’s lead in enacting measures to curb gun violence. Last month, the state joined New York in adopting new firearms restrictions, while legislators in Maryland and Connecticut are moving forward with limits on military-style assault rifles.
“Colorado has shown that practical progress is possible,” he said, surrounded by officers in uniform. “If we’re really going to tackle this problem seriously then we’ve got to get Congress to take the next step.”
The four states, all led by Democrats, are advancing measures favored by Obama in response to the Dec. 14 shooting at a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school that killed 20 children and six adults. While the president made reducing gun violence a second-term priority, he and his Democratic allies so far haven’t been able to transform public horror over the Newtown massacre into action at the federal level.
“The political reality hasn’t really changed since Newtown,” said Laura Cutilletta, an attorney who follows state gun measures for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “The will is there, and the public certainly seems to have mobilized around this issue, but the politics that surround this issue -- the gun lobby and the forces that are exerting pressure on both sides -- in that respect, that is still as it was before.”
Since the shooting, the National Rifle Association, the nation’s biggest lobby for gun owners and manufacturers with $219 million in revenue, has used its influence with Congress to throw up hurdles to legislation.
The U.S. Senate will consider this month a package of gun legislation that includes expanded background checks, a measure to curb gun trafficking and one to increase federal grants for school safety upgrades.
That’s a scaled-back version of Obama’s original proposals, which included a renewal of the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, converted those items to an amendment that stands no chance of survival.
The White House is pursuing a duel-track approach to advance new gun controls. Vice President Joe Biden, who spent 36 years in the Senate representing Delaware, has taken the lead in meeting lawmakers and advocates on both sides of the issue. He has also been working at the state level, calling legislators in Colorado and making appearances in New York and Connecticut.
“The vice president knows these senators so he can speak the language of folks who need persuading on these issues,” said Mark Glaze, executive director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a pro-gun-control group led by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “The president has a different role.”
Bloomberg is the owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News.
Even as they push on the national and state level, Obama’s aides are pre-emptively blaming Republicans, who have a majority in the House and enough votes in the Senate to hold up legislation, for stymieing action.
“If they decide they’re gonna block it, they can do that,” White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said at a Politico breakfast yesterday. He also warned they would face “significant consequences” at the polls if they do so.
Even one of the main components of Obama’s plan with significant public support -- expanded background checks for all gun buyers -- is running into roadblocks. To win some Republican support, Democratic aides say they have may have to drop a requirement that licensed gun dealers maintain records of checks performed on behalf of private sellers.
To create the aura of momentum, Obama is highlighting states that have moved while Washington didn’t.
Colorado is a state with a deep-rooted hunting tradition. It also was the site of two of the biggest mass shootings in U.S. history: at Columbine High School in 1999 and at an Aurora movie theater in July 2012.
The Aurora shooting, in which 12 people were killed and 58 wounded, spurred passage of the law that Governor John Hickenlooper signed last month. It limits the capacity of ammunition magazines and expands background checks for gun sales.
“Colorado is proving a model of what’s possible,” Obama said in Denver yesterday. “There doesn’t have to be a conflict between protecting our citizens and protecting our Second Amendment rights.”
Next week, the president plans to travel to Connecticut, where early this morning the state legislature passed a bipartisan measure that would widen a state ban on assault weapons, limit magazine capacity to 10 bullets and require background checks for all weapons sales. The ban on assault-weapon sales would take effect the moment Governor Dan Malloy signs the measure, expected to happen today at noon Washington time.
“This is a new and historic model for the country on an issue that has typically been the most controversial and divisive,” Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams, a Brooklyn, Connecticut, Democrat, said yesterday just before the chamber approved the measure sending it to the House.
Lawmakers in Maryland yesterday passed a ban on sales of assault-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, impose new licensing requirements on handgun buyers, and bar the mentally ill from possessing firearms.
New York in January passed a law banning high-capacity magazines and closed loopholes in a 2000 ban on assault-weapons.
Public support for stricter gun control laws remains split along party lines. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted March 27-April 1 and released today showed 53 percent of those surveyed -- 78 percent of Democrats, 28 percent of Republicans and 35 percent of gun-owning households -- backing stricter laws.
Universal background checks were far more popular, with 91 percent -- 96 percent of Democrats, 88 percent of Republicans and 88 percent of gun-owning households -- favoring such a proposal. The telephone poll of 1,711 registered voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.4 percentage points.
While efforts by a handful of states to increase gun laws have gained national attention, most of the legislation passed since Newtown have largely strengthened gun rights, according to a report by Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
“If we are going to see broader change than just in the New York, California and Maryland-type states, it will probably take more than one legislative session,” said Cutilletta.