Gun control: inklings of a compromise in the Great Gun Debate

Amid a largely partisan standoff on gun control, there are signs of bipartisan support on issues such as gun trafficking and expanding background checks for gun sales.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D), who was seriously injured in a mass shooting that killed six people in Tucson, Ariz., two years ago, arrives on Capitol Hill for a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on gun violence on Wednesday. She is escorted by her husband, Mark Kelly (r.) a retired astronaut, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, who chairs the panel, and the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa (l.).

If the Senate is going to pass legislation to prevent gun violence, the early returns are that elevating gun trafficking to a federal offense and expanded background checks for weapons sales are in – but a ban on assault weapons and limits on magazine capacity are likely out. 

That’s the upshot of Wednesday’s hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Republicans argued against a proposed assault-weapons ban, while liberal lawmakers, largely avoiding the ban, focused instead on getting to "yes" on gun trafficking and background checks.

But amid a sea of criticism for President Obama' approach to gun regulation, there are already some signs of bipartisan cooperation, at least in the Senate. Whether any measures will be given a hearing in the GOP-controlled House, however, remains an open question because of little to no public appetite from House leadership to move gun legislation.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa, the committee’s top Republican, signaled he would be open to working with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D), the panel's chairman, to craft legislation on tougher penalties for weapons traffickers and for so-called straw purchases, where a legal gun purchaser obtains a weapon for those barred from gun ownership.

While Senator Leahy has introduced his own legislation on the subject, a separate but similar proposal from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York garnered the support of Sen. Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois. 

On expanding background checks to cover not only licensed sales from gun dealers but the sizable chunk of gun sales from private sellers that do not require such checks, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York said he was having “productive conversations with colleagues on both sides of the aisle, including a good number with high NRA ratings” in pursuit of a bill. Senator Schumer offered his hope that those conversations were “close" to legislative language.

At Wednesday's hearing, Leahy proposed marking up whatever legislation emerges next month, then taking it to the floor for a vote shortly thereafter.

While Democrats, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California and Sen. Al Franken (D) of Minnesota, openly backed a ban on the sale or transfer of certain high-powered weapons and limits on high-magazine capacity, many other key Democrats placed little to no emphasis on the subject.

Leahy, for example, discussed background checks and tougher gun trafficking penalties but left out any mention of a ban on assault weapons at the hearing. 

Meanwhile, Republicans unleashed a stream of criticism at the prospect of banning certain military-style weapons or limiting magazine capacity, raising concerns about their constitutionality and the impact such measures have at lowering crime and violence. The lack of GOP support – and skittishness from some Democrats – makes the measure a much more difficult legislative haul.
All of the current GOP senators who were serving in 1994 (seven in all) voted against the first edition of the ban. However, Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine voted for the (ultimately unsuccessful) reauthorization of the ban in 2004.

Former Rep. Gabriel Giffords (D) of Arizona led off the panel with an emotional plea for Congress to "be bold" and act on gun violence. Following her testimony, retired Navy Capt. Mark Kelly, her husband, repeatedly returned to the issue of universal background checks and firmly called for stronger gun trafficking statutes, while couching the issue of assault weapons very broadly.

“Let's have a careful and civil conversation,” he said, “about the lethality of firearms we permit to be legally bought and sold in this country.”

While nascent bipartisan support appears around a handful of issues, Republicans are by no means running to sign up for new gun regulations. Indeed, conservatives on the panel were ready to join the conversation on gun violence with a simple request: The administration should enforce existing gun laws more aggressively.

“I have a hard time telling my constituents in Texas that Congress is looking at passing a whole raft of new laws when the laws that we currently have on the books are so woefully unenforced,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, the Senate minority whip, summing up a stream of criticism from Republicans that enforcement for gun laws had declined under the Obama administration.

Whether gun prosecutions are up or down – Democrats fired back with their own facts and figures, of course, showing this not to be the case – getting even the issues that have some conservative backing across the finish line will not be an easy task.

National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre repeatedly rejected the concept of “universal” background investigations, arguing that criminals would find ways around the system and law-abiding citizens would suffer additional fees and inconvenience.

“It's an unworkable, universal federal nightmare bureaucracy being imposed under the federal government,” Mr. LaPierre said. “I just don't think law-abiding people want every gun sale in the country to be under the thumb of the federal government.”

And on gun trafficking, LaPierre, whose lobby is widely feared in Washington for its political muscle, said that adding yet-another federal law on guns without full enforcement of current law was little more than a feel-good gesture.

“I've been up here on this Hill for 20-some years agreeing to [stricter enforcement of illegal gun ownership] and nobody does it. And that's the problem,” LaPierre said. “Every time we say we're going to do it  – and I'd make you this bet right now: When President Obama leaves office four years from now, his prosecutions will not be much different than they are now.”

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