Gun lobby: Congress doesn't have the muscle to pass gun control

A month after Sandy Hook shootings, lawmakers are scaling back expectations on what can be achieved in Congress on gun control. But Democrats are urging the White House to use executive powers.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting on curbing gun violence at the White House in Washington Jan. 10. Mr. Biden said on Wednesday that the White House is determined to act quickly to curb gun violence and will explore all avenues – including executive orders that would not require approval by Congress – to try to prevent incidents like last month's massacre at a Connecticut school.

Nearly a month after the massacre of 27 people in Newtown, Conn., lawmakers on Capitol Hill are dialing back expectations of what Congress can – or should – do on its own to curb gun violence.

After initial expressions of outrage, lawmakers and the White House are getting down to counting votes on what can actually be achieved on Capitol Hill, where limits on gun rights have been taboo for more than a decade.

On Sunday, top gun lobbyists predicted that there’s not enough support in Congress for a new ban on assault weapons and that even curbs on high-capacity magazine clips were in doubt.

“When a president takes all the power of his office, if he’s willing to expend political capital, you don’t want to make predictions,” said David Keene, president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), on CNN’s “State of the Union.”  

“But I would say that the likelihood is that they’re not going to be able to get an assault weapons ban through the Congress,”  he added.

Since the Sandy Hook shootings, gun sales and requests for background checks have spiked, in anticipation of new curbs on guns. The NRA reports that it has gained 100,000 new members since the Dec. 14 shootings and expects to soon top 5 million members.

There's a window for action after incidents like the Sandy Hook shootings, and that window is beginning to close, says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J.  "Memories of the shooting start to fade, the NRA starts to be more comfortable, reformers start to back off, and they are much more timid."

"If Obama wants to do something, he has to make this front and center, because it's getting harder by the day," he adds.

Vice President Joe Biden, who met last week with a wide range of interest groups on gun violence,  is expected to deliver recommendations to the president on Tuesday.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are proposing measures to renew the assault weapons ban, limit the size of high-capacity magazine clips, require universal background checks, increase mental-health screenings, and pressure Hollywood and the video-game industry to dial back the violence.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia electrified the pro-gun control community when he announced that the slaughter of children at Sandy Hook “changed me,” and called on his “friends in the NRA” to be “at the table” on preventing gun violence.

But his main focus in appearances on Sunday talk shows was to assure gun owners that Congress will not rein in gun rights.

 “I would tell all of my friends in the NRA, I will work extremely hard and I will guarantee you that there will not be an encroachment on your Second Amendment rights,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”

“An assault weapons stand-alone ban on just guns alone will not go anywhere  in the political reality we are in,” Senator Manchin said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”  It has to be a “comprehensive approach,” he added, including mental health and video violence. The issues is not guns, he said, it’s a “culture of mass violence.”

The assault weapons ban passed mainly with Democratic votes in 1994 contributed to the GOP takeover of the House  (for the first time in 40 years) in November elections that year.  The loss of pro-gun Democratic voters in states like West Virginia also helped sink Al Gore’s presidential bid in 2000. It’s been a toxic issue for most Democrats ever since.

Most Republicans still oppose curbs on gun rights. “We obviously have a situation where crazy people, deranged individuals are having access to guns,” said Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona on  CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday.  But “just taking guns away from people” is not the answer, he added.

Meanwhile, Democrats are proposing administrative measures that the White House can take on its own to rein in gun violence. Senior Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee wrote to Mr. Biden on Jan. 11, urging him to include a recommendation in his report to increase research on gun-related violence. Since 1997, House appropriations laws have included language to bar the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using funds “to advocate or promote gun control," language that has had a chilling impact on studies of gun violence, they say.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) of Connecticut on Friday called on the Obama administration to ensure that all federal agencies are providing needed records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check system. "Many federal agencies still do not report the necessary information to the database," he wrote in a letter to Biden.

Also on Friday, Sens. Tom  Harkin (D) of Iowa and Al Franken (D) of Minnesota, called on the Obama administration to use executive powers to expand access to mental-health and substance abuse services.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) of Maryland told CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday that "it's going to be very difficult" to revive the assault weapons ban. But there's a better chance of winning agreement on universal background checks and limits on high-capacity magazines, he added.

But even such measures are now in doubt, says Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America on “Fox News Sunday.” "We don't think that there is much likelihood that the Congress is going to move on making gun-control laws worse than they are.”

Last week, Roll Call reported that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of House Democrats, launched an e-mail petition drive to support the president in taking up the gun issue, a new version of the 2012 “Have His Back” campaign.

“We hear from the White House that they are going to lay down political capital on this issue,” says Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, speaking on "Fox News Sunday."

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