Gun control in Congress: Lawmakers must shed their fear of NRA

Bills to ban high-capacity gun ammunition clips and close the 'gun show loophole' have been introduced in Congress. The Tucson shootings demand a courageous effort by lawmakers to pass this legislation.

In the wake of the Tucson shootings, reasonable gun control legislation has made an appearance on Capitol Hill. It can survive and become law, but only if lawmakers find the courage to back it.

One proposal – introduced in both the House and Senate – would ban high-capacity ammunition clips that hold more than 10 bullets. Arizona shooter suspect Jared Loughner allegedly wielded a semiautomatic pistol with a clip containing 31 rounds. Nineteen people were hit (six killed), before he was wrestled to the ground while changing magazines. The ban being proposed now existed until late 2004, when Congress – under pressure from the gun lobby – allowed it to lapse.

Another proposal, introduced this week in the Senate, would close the “gun show loophole” by requiring that people who buy firearms at gun shows also be subject to background checks, just as buyers at licensed gun dealerships are. The shooters in the 1999 Columbine High School case got around the background check by buying from an unlicensed seller at a gun show.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) opposes both of these ideas, with its backers reminding the nation that it is people – misguided or unbalanced – who commit crimes, not guns.

True. True. But the United States makes it way too easy for such people to get guns, that, in the wrong hands, kill about 30,000 people every year. Massacres like that in Tucson (that also injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords) only serve as a reminder of this yearly, unnecessary toll.

No substantial gun-control law has made it through Congress in the past 17 years. Emblazoned on the minds of Democrats – traditional supporters of gun legislation – is the 1994 electoral thumping they took from the gun lobby. That was the year the Assault Weapons Ban and the background check went into effect. Later losses only reinforced their fear of the NRA.

But advocates of sensible checks, such as the ones just proposed in Congress, suggest the gun lobby is not as almighty as presumed. In the November 2010 election, for instance, 27 House Democrats who were endorsed by the NRA still lost, while in the Senate, supporters of gun control from both parties won. Swing voters – suburban women – generally support gun restrictions.

Timing may help this legislation. The Tucson shooting has prompted high-profile Republicans such as former Vice President Dick Cheney to suggest that “maybe it’s appropriate” to reinstate the ban on high-capacity ammunition clips.

Meanwhile, Republican staffers on the House Judiciary Committee were to join Democrats today in a meeting with officials from the Obama administration to discuss the effectiveness of the background check.

Although the Arizona shooting suspect had a history of drug use and looks to have mental problems, he cleared the check. One area of compromise might be to adjust the check criteria. Even if the net is cast wider, states still need to do a better job of feeding names into the clearance system.

Let’s say, though, that the background check becomes more effective. What good is that if someone bent on killing can circumvent it at a gun show? While polling shows that Americans do not want stricter laws covering the sale of firearms, when pollsters ask about a specific measure such as requiring background checks at gun shows, they overwhelmingly support it; even a majority of gun owners.

With a Republican-controlled House and a strong gun lobby, gun-control advocates are not particularly hopeful. And yet, even the landmark 2008 Supreme Court ruling establishing the individual right to bear arms still allows for regulation.

There is no way to test the waters but to wade into them. Tucson demands that lawmakers do just that.

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