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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 the New 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.

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