Civil Liberties

The Public's Hope for Meaningful Gun Reform Crumbles as Congress Still Hides From the NRA

A number of states are making progress in establishing gun controls, but Congress has its head in the sand.

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Politics is never pretty. But the recent optics by Democrats in the gun control debate have been more than discouraging. On Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pulled a new assault-weapons ban from a package of bills he will introduce next month. And in New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo is already saying the major gun controls he pushed into law this winter have unworkable pieces that must be revised.

“How many assault weapons do you need circulating?” California Senator Dianne Feinstein asked this week, after meeting with Reid and learning that he would not push her bill. “To have these mass killings is such a blight on everything that America stands for.” 

The biggest exception to these high-profile turnarounds is Colorado’s Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who signed a new package of tougher laws including background checks for private gun sales, in addition to those already required at shops and gun shows, and a ban on ammunition magazines holding more than 15 rounds.

Gun-control advocates, such as Mark Glaze of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, told theNew York Times that the new assault weapons ban proposed by Sen. Feinstein was not the priority, in the same edition of the paper where Gov. Hickenlooper signed the Colorado law and touted the assault-weapon magazine ban, saying the higher-capacity ammunition clips “could turn killers into killing machines.”

Instead, Glaze said “The background check bill has always been the center of our agenda.”

The problem with that approach, which is little discussed in the mainstream media, is that the Supreme Court has held, in a 1997 decision authored by Justice Antonin Scalia, that states don’t have to participate in the FBI’s background check system—and many don’t. In other words, the Mayors’ "solution" at best is going to be optional in red states, where violence and domestic abuse tied to guns are as common as anywhere else.

Academics who are quoted on the gun violence debate say that gun control advocates are trying to straddle a fine line, trying to reassure the pro-gun side that new laws won’t lead to taking away anyone’s guns but instead will make it harder for violence-prone people to get guns.

The reality is, you cannot have it both ways. The NRA is quick to say that only "bad people" abuse guns—but when does a "good person" become a "bad person" when guns are involved? When they lose it in a fight with their partner? When they get fired from a job? When they feel the need to act out before they return to their senses? 

New York’s Gov. Cuomo clearly undertands that the best way to stop gun violence is to keep guns away from the hands of people who are most likey to use them to hurt others, and to lessen the potential of people to become “killing machines,” to use his Colorado counterpart’s terms, by outlawing high-capacity magazines. His reforms allow police to confiscate guns from anyone involved or suspected of domestic abuse, or seen by public employees or medical professionals as mentally unstable. Unlike in the Congress, he muscled his bill through the first days of the 2013 legislative session. But now Cuomo is backtracking and says he will propose legislative fixes in coming days concerning the ban on ammunition magazines holding more than seven bullets. That ceiling will be revised.

“There was no haste,” he told the Huffington Post. “The gun bill was worked on every day for weeks and weeks and weeks.”

Other gun policy experts, such as UCLA law professor Adam Winkler said that the gun control side was squandering a rare opening by focusing on Feinstein’s ban, when most of the gun violence isn’t tied to assault weapons, and by giving the NRA an easy target to make outsized objections to. He noted, in contrast, that Harry Reid has not yet said if a ban on the capacity of ammunition magazines would come to the Senate floor.

Still, the optics—or political perceptions—are discouraging. On the one hand, we have Reid being unwilling to fight for tougher measures—at least as a point of departure or a starting line for what inevitably will be ensuing compromises as legislation progresses. Then there’s the opposite problem in New York State, where an aggressive governor apparently made sloppy mistakes in a rush to do something strong and meaningful.

Which brings us back to the question of what can be done that will have a real impact. The background check system has been reluctantly supported by the calculating pro-gun lobby because they know it’s not very effective. In the meantime, the Supreme Court, again in another ruling written by Scalia in 2008, has held that citizens have a federal constitutional right to have a handgun in their home for self-defense.

Most gun violence, during domestic violence disputes and suicides, occurs within people’s homes. You have to ask what problems the gun-control politicans and advocates are seeking to address. Feinstein was clear: no more mass shootings. Hickenlooper was clear: no more “killing machines,” and higher hurdles to obtaining a gun. Cuomo was clear: limiting access to firearms—but he was sloppy. And Reid is also clear: doing little to change the dynamics around gun violence.                  

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).