Republicans Line Up to Crush Gun Control Efforts in Wake of San Bernardino

A day after 14 people were killed in the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, all four Republican presidential candidates in the US Senate – Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio – opposed a measure that would introduce tighter gun laws.

They were among Republicans who overwhelmingly voted down a gun control measure that would extend FBI background checks on every firearms purchase.

Only four of the 54 Republican senators voted on Thursday in favour of applying the checks to currently unregulated sales of firearms online and at gun shows.

Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who co-sponsored a similar failed attempt at gun reform in the wake of the December 2012 massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, was joined in supporting the tighter restrictions by fellow GOP senators Susan Collins of Maine, Mark Kirk of Illinois and John McCain of Arizona. But they were the only four Republicans to do so.

The almost blanket opposition to greater gun controls – even in the wake of the bloodiest mass shooting since Newtown – underlined the hardline position that the Republican party has come to adopt over the second amendment. 

A second gun control effort by Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein suffered a similar fate, voted down by a solid Republican bloc giving 54 votes to 45. It would have removed one of the most glaring anomalies of current US gun laws whereby individuals who are listed on the state’s terror watchlist – and forbidden from flying as a result – are nonetheless able to buy lethal firearms.

Both measures were introduced by the Democrats as a means of casting light on the almost rock-solid hostility of the modern Republican party to gun controls despite the rash of recent mass shootings.

It was not always like that. Ronald Reagan, a figure of worship for many modern conservatives, was far more amenable to the idea of intervention to reduce the carnage. The late president, also a former governor of California, was profoundly influenced in his thinking on firearms by the assassination attempt on his life in 1981 that injured him and left his press secretary Jim Brady paralyzed.

Brady went on to found the leading gun control advocacy group in the country, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Reagan himself, on leaving office in 1989, added his considerable political weight to key pieces of gun control legislation. In 1991 he wrote an article for the New York Times titled “Why I’m for the Brady bill” in which he explained why he supported a new provision – named after Jim Brady – that forced gun buyers to wait seven days before acquiring a firearm, giving time for background checks by local police.

“Every year an average of 9,200 Americans are murdered by handguns,” Reagan said. “This level of violence must be stopped. If the passage of the Brady bill were to result in a reduction of only 10-15% of those numbers (and it could be a good deal greater), it would be well worth making it the law of the land.”

Three years later Reagan joined fellow former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford in writing a letter to the Boston Globe in which they backed a ban on assault rifles. “While we recognize that assault weapon legislation will not stop all assault weapon crime, statistics prove that we can dry up the supply of these guns, making them less accessible to criminals,” the presidents wrote.

It is not coincidental that the shift from Reagan’s relatively moderate stance on guns to the Republican party’s hard line today is mirrored by an identical trajectory shown by the NRA. As Adam Winkler of UCLA has shown, the NRA in the 1920s and 30s was a leading proponent of gun control laws.

The lobby group pioneered legislation that banned the concealed carrying of handguns in public places without police permission. It also backed the introduction of permits that only granted firearms to individuals who could show a “proper reason for carrying”.

Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center and an authority on the NRA, said the group’s moderate position came to an abrupt end in 1977 when it sharply changed tack under the leadership of Harlon Carter. “From then on the NRA dropped its focus on sporting activities and concentrated primarily on politics,” Sugarmann said.

Over the past 20 years the NRA and the Republican party have moved in concert towards increasingly rigid policies opposing any gun controls. Their combined strength has seen the rolling back of even the meagre regulations that were in place, including the lapsing in 2004 of the assault weapons ban that Reagan had supported.

The NRA and its GOP allies in Congress have similarly consistently blocked any attempt to end the situation in which individuals on the terror watchlist are allowed to buy guns. As a result, as the Washington Post has pointed out, in the 10 years up to 2014 suspected terrorists attempted to buy firearms in the US at least 2,233 times.

Given this solid wall of opposition, signs of compromise on the right are extremely few and far between. But there was one such opening on Thursday when the former GOP congressman who was seminal in introducing an NRA-fostered ban on federal research into gun violence announced he now wants to see the prohibition lifted.

Jay Dickey, a former US House representative from Arkansas, called for the scrapping of his 1996 amendment that banned the federal agency the Centers for Disease Control from engaging in research aimed at reducing gun deaths. Hours after the San Bernardino rampage Dickey wrote in a public letter: “Doing nothing is no longer an acceptable solution.”

Having recently expressed his regrets about the legislation he championed, Dickey went further and argued that from now on the CDC should be allowed to conduct research designed to reduce gun violence. Dickey cited its other important work in investigating how to cut fatalities from car crashes.

“Research could have been continued on gun violence without infringing on the rights of gun owners, in the same fashion that the highway industry continued its research without eliminating the automobile,” Dickey said.

In addition to voting against the gun reform measure in the Senate, one of the Republican presidential candidates – Paul, who is senator for Kentucky – introduced an amendment to allow the federal government to essentially override the District of Columbia’s strict gun control laws. It failed to achieve the necessary 60-vote supermajority to advance and failed by a margin of 54-46.

Meanwhile, Cruz, who represents Texas, and is currently considered among the frontrunners in the Republican race for the White House, announced his campaign would be holding a “second Amendment event” at a gun store in suburban Des Moines on Friday.


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