It’s pretty ironic contemplating the gun-control issue while sitting in front of a fireplace in South Carolina after a morning of turkey hunting. But it’s the issue that now is crowding out the fiscal cliff and even distracting those who would otherwise be fixated on Christmas shopping. The slaughter in Newtown, Conn., of 20 innocent children—each reportedly shot at least twice, and some as many as 11 times—in addition to the killing of the shooter’s mother and six adults at the school is something that shocks the conscience. The fact that the children were either 6 or 7 years of age—combined with Newtown’s proximity to New York City, the media capital of the world—buttresses the view of many that if any recent mass killing in this country will have lasting impact, it will be this one.
Even strong Second Amendment supporters wonder if Newtown is the tipping point. A 67-year old native South Carolinian I was hunting with on Sunday, who is a retired career fish and wildlife enforcement official and a National Rifle Association member, said he suspected that this might be a game-changing event.
A post-shooting ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that 54 percent of Americans now support stricter gun-control laws. The survey noted that level of support was “numerically [at] a five-year high, albeit not significantly different than in recent years.” Fifty-nine percent back a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips. Among Democrats, 74 percent favor tougher gun-control laws, but only 29 percent of Republicans do; independents fall in between at 52 percent. An event would have to really galvanize independents to move the overall numbers a great deal. Most Democrats are already in favor of gun control, and most Republicans will be the last to join in. It’s independents who either will or won’t move.
It’s easy to understand why the NRA takes the absolutist, no-compromise position that it has long held. Making concessions—even when it comes to the popular Bushmaster, the civilian version of the military’s M-16 used in the Newtown killings, and other assault rifles—would, in the NRA’s view, lead to banning weapons commonly used in hunting or self-defense. There is no doubt that advocates of stricter gun laws would start going after the low-hanging fruit of the more exotic weaponry and large-capacity clips before pushing for more far-reaching restrictions.
But it’s also true that it’s a big step from banning assault rifles and semiautomatic pistols that fire up to five rounds in a second to clamping down on revolvers or hunting weapons.
Although it’s easy for liberals on cable shows to predict that the mass killing in Newtown will lead to a dramatic tightening of gun laws, the simple arithmetic of the House and Senate suggests that action will be very difficult. According to Cook Political Report House Editor David Wasserman, only 15 of the 234 Republicans who were elected to the House last month are in districts also carried by President Obama, presumably the more-liberal districts and more likely to be open to tighter gun laws; 219 House Republicans represent districts won by Mitt Romney, one more than the 218 majority.
Nine of the 201 districts in which Democrats were elected to the House voted for the GOP nominee.
With 94 percent of House Republicans sitting in Romney districts and 96 percent of Democrats in districts won by Obama, it’s clear that the House is pretty much sorted out on the issue, with not that many “fish out of water” members (Republicans occupying Democratic-leaning districts or Democrats in Republican-oriented districts). Arguably, this means that while fewer Democrats would have to worry about incurring the wrath of the NRA in so called pro-gun districts, relatively few Republicans would be endangered by opposing a gun-control measure. The virtual absence of Democrats in rural and small-town districts and their paucity in nonminority Southern districts have left few in the House Democratic Caucus vulnerable on antigun votes. Conversely, the kind of districts most likely to be pro-gun are the ones that are occupied by Republicans.
In the Senate, Susan Collins of Maine is the only one of the 14 Republicans up for reelection in 2014 in a state won by Obama. Indeed, the only four from states that Romney won by less than 15 points are Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott of South Carolina, and Thad Cochran of Mississippi, and none of them are likely to face much pressure to vote against the NRA. Conversely, Democrats have six incumbents up for reelection in states that went for Romney by 14 points or more, meaning that the defections could be quite high.
Maybe the public outcry is so great that Congress will move on gun control, but considering the makeup of the House and Senate, the odds look tough. Whatever happens may more likely originate from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
This article appears in the Dec. 18, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily as After the Massacre.