President Obama's gun-control proposals are getting a mixed reception on Capitol Hill, where there appears to be bipartisan support for universal background checks but little appetite for banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines – even among some Democrats.
Key Democratic leaders in the Senate have signaled that they are behind all the president's efforts, suggesting that they will get a full airing there. But meeting the 60-vote threshold to pass the president's entire agenda without a filibuster appears unlikely – and the Republican-controlled House shows no signs of taking action until the Senate passes a bill.
While national opinion polls have shown a greater openness to gun control after the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., they also indicate that the American public is overwhelmingly supportive only of universal background checks. And without overwhelming support, it seems, Republicans and Democrats in conservative-leaning districts fear they are more likely to face a backlash for a vote in favor of gun control than against it.
“If you look at the combination of likelihood of passage and effectiveness of curbing gun crime, universal background checks is at the sweet spot,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York.
According to a recent Washington Post-ABC poll, almost 9 in 10 Americans support universal background checks. That’s far higher than the slim majority of Americans who favor bans on assault-weapon sales or restrictions on magazine size, according to the same poll.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Mr. Obama's proposal to require background checks for all gun buyers drew almost no criticism from Republican lawmakers. Currently, gun sales from so-called “private sellers,” which make up about 4 in 10 firearms transactions, don’t require the buyer to pass a background check.
Rep. Mike Thompson (D) of California, chairman of the House’s Democratic task force on gun violence, told reporters on Monday he had spoken to several Republican members who were in favor of universal background checks.
But beyond universal background checks, the rest of the president’s proposals look as if they could be in for a hard slog.
Senate Democrats vow to fight for the president. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told students at Georgetown University’s Law Center on Wednesday that he would begin a series of hearings on gun control two weeks from Wednesday. That would mark the first congressional action on the subject.
“I think it is an urgent situation and that’s why the first hearings of anybody, House or Senate, will be held by me,” Senator Leahy said. “I would point out that I have a track record of getting legislation passed.”
Crucially, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada said in a statement Wednesday he was “committed” to Senate consideration of gun-violence legislation early in 2013.
But Democrats will need at least five Senate Republicans to avoid a filibuster. And when Republicans look at the options laid out by the president, they don’t like much of what they see.
“President Obama is targeting the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens instead of seriously addressing the real underlying causes of such violence,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida.
Specifically, Republicans took aim at restrictions on assault weapons and potential new limits on magazines that hold the weapons' ammunition.
“Criminals aren’t going to follow legislation limiting magazine capacity. However, a limit could put law-abiding citizens at a distinct disadvantage when confronting a criminal,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina. “As for reinstating the assault-weapons ban, it has already been tried and failed.”
Many reacted negatively to Obama’s executive orders, saying the use of such powers shows the president is not acting in good faith.
“Instead of a thoughtful, open and deliberate conversation, President Obama is attempting to institute new restrictions on a fundamental constitutional right.... It’s the wrong way to unite people behind a proposal on such a powerful and emotional topic,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who had previously expressed some openness to restrictions on bullet magazines, in a statement. “The legislative proposals face an uphill battle in Congress.”
Some Democrats, too, might have reservations. More than a half-dozen red-state Democrats are up for election in 2014, and they may not want a gun vote hanging around their necks. Other Democrats, including Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, have top grades from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and will have to be convinced to go along with the president. Freshman Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D) of North Dakota called Democratic proposals “extreme” before they even became public.
What happens in the Senate will do much to shape what, if any, action happens in Congress’s other half. The reaction from the House was summed up by a short statement from the office of Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio, effectively saying: Call us when the Senate does something.
"House committees of jurisdiction will review these recommendations,” said Michael Steel, a Boehner spokesman. “And if the Senate passes a bill, we will also take a look at that."
As in the Senate, a few House Democrats in conservative-leaning districts might be wary of a risky vote on guns. Support for gun rights is one reason that lawmakers such as Democratic Reps. Jim Matheson of Utah, Jim McIntyre (D) of North Carolina, and Nick Rahall of West Virginia survive. All three received financial support from the NRA.
Representative Rahall, for example, voted against the crime bill containing the original assault-weapons ban in 1994.
Moreover, more Democrats are looking at tight reelection contests than are Republicans. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates 16 Democratic seats in 2014 that are toss-ups or lean slightly toward the Democrat versus only six Republicans in a similar situation.
Were controversial legislation to come to the House, that chamber’s final response to the president may sound something like the response of Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia to Obama's proposals. Representative Goodlatte said his committee would look at the president’s recommendations as it went about its own review of policy aimed at preventing future incidents like the shooting in Newtown.
“However,” Goodlatte said, “good intentions do not necessarily make good laws.”