As mass shootings surge, Congress looks away

Columbine High School security tape capture Eric Harris (left) and Dylan Klebold in the school cafeteria. (Flickr, Fishbowl Collective)

Columbine High School security tape capture Eric Harris (left) and Dylan Klebold in the school cafeteria. (Flickr, Fishbowl Collective)

In recent weeks more than 60 people — including seven police officers — have been killed in multiple-death shootings from coast to coast.

Last month in Southern Alabama, an unemployed twenty-something sheet-metal worker armed himself with two semi-automatic rifles, a shotgun and a pistol. He shot his mother and the four family dogs, and then drove to a neighboring town where he killed four more relatives, four passersby, and then himself. All in all, he sprayed more than 200 bullets across two Alabama counties. The ages of the victims ranged from 74 years to 18 months. It was the worst killing spree in state history.

Since then other parts of the country have suffered similar nightmares. It’s just the type of headline-grabbing trend that might usually get congressional lawmakers screaming from the rafters for policy reforms, like banning military-style assault weapons and forcing gun-show vendors to do background checks on prospective buyers. Gun control advocates argue that such steps would help stem the more than 30,000 gun deaths that plague the United States each year.

But that hasn’t been the case. Instead, the reaction from congressional leaders — even the most vocal gun-reform proponents — has been a long, strange silence.

It wasn’t always this way. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was the author of the successful 1994 effort to install an assault weapons ban, which expired five years ago. Yet last week, less than a month after four police officers were killed in a shooting spree in Oakland, Feinstein told “60 Minutes” that, while she hopes to reintroduce the measure, “I wouldn’t bring it up now.”

Similarly, President Obama — who campaigned on a platform of renewing the assault weapons ban — reiterated his support for that prohibition during a visit to Mexico last week, but added that he’s not “under any illusions that reinstating that ban would be easy.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is another long-time advocate for tightening gun laws. Yet pressed this month about the absence of any gun reform push in Congress, she offered only a vague explanation about the need “to find some level of compromise.”

Spokespersons for both Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said there’s no plan on the horizon for gun reform legislation this year.

The reason is no mystery. Although Democrats expanded their majorities in both chambers of Congress last year, they owe those gains largely to more moderate members, who picked up seats in a number of conservative-leaning states that have historically gone Republican. Indeed, when Attorney General Eric Holder in February announced his support for renewal of the assault weapons ban, 65 House Democrats wrote to the White House attacking the proposal.

“Law-abiding Americans use these guns for all the same reasons they use any other kind of gun – competitive shooting, hunting and defending their homes and families,” the Democrats wrote.

Colorado Reps. Betsy Markey and John Salazar were among the signatories.

Not only do those members not want to be seen threatening their constituents’ Second Amendment rights, but Pelosi and other Democratic leaders are bending over backwards to ensure that those seats remain Democratic in elections to come. In this political environment, congressional aids say, even a gun reform push from liberal Democrats would only divide the party and undermine other legislative priorities.

“What’s the sense in expending a good amount of political capital?” asked a House Democratic aide, who asked to remain anonymous due to the political nature of the topic. “You know you’re going to lose. You know you don’t have the votes … It’s never good when leadership loses a vote, and this is a vote they’ll lose.”

Then there’s the issue of lobbying. The pro-gun National Rifle Association is among the most powerful forces in all of Washington. In the 2008 election cycle alone, the NRA’s political action committee spent $15.6 million on campaign activities, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And the group keeps tabs on every vote even remotely related to gun reform, threatening lawmakers with poor NRA rankings if they vote against the lobby’s agenda.

The NRA did not reply to a call requesting comment, but the prowess of the gun lobby was in full display earlier this year during congressional debate on legislation to grant a voting representative to the residents of Washington, DC. That bill passed the Senate in February, but not before the NRA swayed lawmakers to attach language all but scrapping Washington’s gun control laws, which are among the strictest in the nation. Faced with the gun-policy wildcard, stymied House Democrats have refused to bring the bill to the floor.

The reason is simple. The combination of support from Republicans and moderate Democrats all but ensures that the bill would pass. “On this issue, the NRA controls the House,” said the Democratic aide. “It’s that simple. We’re in a political environment in which not much can be done because of the levels of power.”

That’s bad news for gun control advocates, who are pushing a series of reforms to tighten the nation’s gun laws. Aside from reinstating the assault weapons ban, advocates want to force all gun-show vendors, even those unlicensed, to conduct background checks on potential customers to prevent felons and other violent criminals from obtaining weapons — the same requirements currently in place for licensed gun sellers. A Senate bill, sponsored in the last Congress by Sens. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Jack Reed, D-Del., would do just that, but it hasn’t resurfaced this year.

Another proposed reform would force gun makers to adopt a new technology that engraves weapons microscopically with their make, model and serial number — information that would be left imprinted on the bullet casing after the gun is fired. Such a proposal was pushed by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., in the last Congress, but it as well has yet to appear this year. All three reforms are supported by public service groups, like the International Association of Chiefs of Police, but have been assailed by the gun lobby as initial steps toward an all-out gun ban.

Lawmakers insist that gun reform hasn’t fallen off their radar, but some gun control advocates are growing impatient. “There are a lot of politicians,” said Doug Pennington, spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, “even in the face of the mass shootings over the past six weeks, who aren’t exactly sure how stiff their backbones are.”

The debate arrives as a wave of high-profile gun violence has swept across the country in recent weeks. On March 29, a heavily armed gunman killed eight in a North Carolina nursing home. A day later, an IT professional opened fire on his family in Santa Clara, killing six people, including himself. In Binghampton, N.Y., on April 3, a gunman walked into a community center and killed 13 immigrants before turning a gun on himself. A day later, a 22-year-old Pittsburgh man barricaded himself in his home with a stash of assault weapons, killing three police officers in the stand-off. The list goes on.

Michael Bailey, political science professor at Georgetown University, pointed out that, despite the gruesome trend, there simply isn’t the public outcry to inspire Congress to stick their necks out for something as controversial as gun reform. “As terrible as these tragedies were,” Bailey wrote in an email, “there doesn’t seem to be any appetite for thinking about them.”

Even without the recent spate of gun deaths, the debate would be timely. Last Thursday marked the two-year anniversary of the shootings at Virginia Tech that left 33 people dead, including the gunman. And today marks the 10-year anniversary of Colorado’s Columbine High School massacre where two seniors killed 12 students and a teacher before turning the guns on themselves.

In the absence of any federal movement, some state and local lawmakers have emerged in an effort to fill the void. Last week, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg visited Virginia to urge state lawmakers to pass a bill closing the so-called “gun-show loophole.”

“Criminals do not have the right to own guns, and the gun shows make it far too easy for them to acquire guns,” Bloomberg said. “In fact, it’s easier for a criminal to buy a gun at a gun show than it is for a 20-year-old to buy a beer or for anyone to rent a car.”

In Pennsylvania, Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell has thrust himself into the debate as well, pushing last week for lawmakers to take up the assault weapons ban — a prickly topic in a blue-collar state where unlimited gun rights are deemed by many to be sacrosanct.

“They’re made for only one purpose,” Rendell said of assault weapons. “Not for sport, not for hunting, nobody uses them in a duck blind, nobody uses them at the Olympics. They are used to kill and maim.”

Advocates for gun reforms are quick to concede that the proposed reforms wouldn’t prevent many of the gun-related deaths that torment the United States. Only one of the guns used by the Alabama shooter, for example, would have been prohibited under the 1994 assault weapons ban. Still, they maintain, taking some steps to keep military-grade weapons off the streets — and all weapons out of the hands of violent criminals — would go a long way toward improving safety in a country where firearms kill more than 80 people every day.

“That’s not normal,” Pennington said of the enormous number of domestic gun deaths. “We shouldn’t treat that as just the cost of living in America.”

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Mike Lillis

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