Five Hard Realities for Gun-Control Proponents

A Bushmaster AR-15 semiautomatic rifle was used in the Sandy Hook school massacre in Connecticut Photograph by Julie Dermansky/Corbis

The unceremonious Senate box office flop of Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) “Assault Weapons Ban: The Sequel” provides an occasion to assess where we are in the post-Newtown gun-control debate. The news is not good for firearm skeptics.

Three months after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre of 20 first-graders and six educators, Senate Democrats have shut down Senator Feinstein’s ill-starred attempt to revive restrictions on the sale of military-style semiautomatic rifles of the sort used by the Newtown madman. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Feinstein’s legislation, which would also have banned the sale of ammunition magazines containing more than 10 rounds, has fewer than 40 votes in the 100-member Senate. (An earlier assault weapons ban, enacted in 1994, expired in 2004.)

When the Senate returns from a leisurely two-and-a-half-week recess, scheduled to commence on March 23, Reid promises to get some kind of gun-control bill to the floor for a vote. Its precise contours remain uncertain. Still, after 12 weeks of politicking on the gun issue, it’s possible to make some predictions and observations:

1. President Barack Obama isn’t serious about pushing gun control. Yes, he has given a few speeches, saying things like, “Weapons of war have no place in our streets or in our schools or threatening our law enforcement officers.” Notice, however, that the Feinstein bill died without a peep from the president. If there were a time for him to step up and spend political capital, it’s now. He’s not doing it. My bet is that he’s keeping his social-reform powder dry for immigration reform.

2. National poll numbers don’t matter. Public-opinion experts report that strong national majorities support ideas such as assault weapon and magazine restrictions. An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted March 7-10 found 57 percent supporting an assault weapon ban, with 41 percent opposed. As your junior high civics book taught you, though, we have a federal system. The popular vote doesn’t count for much. What does matter are the views of Democrats from pro-gun states, most of whom are hesitant about or outright opposed to bans or restrictions on particular weapons. In the Senate, these politicians include Max Baucus and Jon Tester of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. Speaking of particular states, gun-control laws are making progress in New York, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, and a handful of other blue states.

3. The House has a veto. By starting the national debate in the Senate, where they hold a slim majority, Democrats have created the misleading appearance of movement toward federal gun-control changes when, in fact, the real fight will be in the Republican-controlled House. Whatever emerges from the Senate will be watered down, if not drowned, by the obstructionist, anti-Obama Republican majority led by Speaker John Boehner. The Senate is going through the motions as a political gesture, which helps explain why the Feinstein initiative ended with a whimper, not a bang.

4. Democrats may fumble background checks, too. Since the days immediately after the Dec. 14 Newtown massacre, realistic analysts, including yours truly, tried to focus attention on political and substantive weaknesses of the assault weapons ban proposals, in contrast to the more sensible idea of improving the criminal-background-check system. I won’t rehearse all of those arguments here. By expending time and energy on a futile attempt to humor Senator Feinstein, the White House and other gun-control proponents have failed to mount a laser-like campaign to rationalize a law that’s already on the books. We already require a computerized background check for every gun sale by a licensed firearm dealer. Bizarrely, we allow unlicensed “private” sellers to market guns no questions asked. Closing that loophole could have been framed as a modest crime-control step with few, if any, Second Amendment implications. Democrats didn’t do that, and they have muddied the issue.

5. The upshot: When the Senate reassembles, Reid will permit floor debate on an unobjectionable but largely symbolic bill that toughens penalties for illegal firearm trafficking and increases (marginally) federal financial aid for school safety. Democrats will offer amendments on assault weapons and magazines; those will quickly fail. Democrats will offer other amendments on background checks; those will get tangled up in debates about record-keeping. The White House will signal that it wants something to pass, so the background-check provision will get deferred. Over to the House.

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