All of a sudden a dam broke, and it’s OK for members of Congress to talk about guns. The discussion is civil and calm for now, and everyone hopes that means sanity will prevail when it comes to new firearms policies.
“I think elected officials are thinking about trying a little experiment. They might try to get the policy right in the hopes that the politics will take care of themselves,” said Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, an organization run by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
In an incredibly divided Congress, it seems ridiculous to assume lawmakers would focus on policy before politics. (For Exhibit A of political gamesmanship, look at the back and forth on a fiscal-cliff deal on Tuesday.) But on guns, it turns out there is a lot of rational agreement among even gun enthusiasts about trying to protect innocent people from being killed by them.
New rules being tossed around by lawmakers include banning high-capacity magazine clips, the kind that allow hundreds of rounds to be fired at a time, and tightening up background checks for gun purchases. Existing gun laws could also be enforced with greater regularity, such as compelling or enticing states to do a better job of reporting red flags like drug abuse or domestic violence to a national crime database.
“Obviously that system is only going to be as effective as the completeness of the data,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who supports banning high-capacity magazine clips and renewing the assault-weapons ban, which expired in 2004.
Collins identified the background-check system as one of the ripest areas where Republicans and Democrats and pro-gun and antigun members can find common ground. “That may not be as easy as you think. The issue is, how do you compel states to share the information about mental illness, adjudications, while at the same time being sensitive to the privacy rights of the individuals? So those issues are complicated.”
Collins is unusual among Republicans in stating outright that she supports some types of weapons bans. Other Republican senators either ran away from reporters or waffled when peppered with questions about it on Tuesday. “It’s not timely to be talking about this while people are burying their children,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, referring to last Friday's massacre in Newtown, Conn. His Texas colleague, Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, politely declined to discuss the topic.
“Here’s the temptation of people in my business to react and say we did something. Well, at the end of the day there are some problems that just go beyond the government’s ability to solve,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
An assault-weapons ban? “I don’t feel like that’s going to stop anything,” Graham said. “We live in a dangerous world. It’s always been that way, and you just can’t have the government solve every problem.”
Still, there is a new willingness inside the GOP to engage on the issue. House Republicans discussed the Newtown massacre and gun legislation at a conference meeting on Tuesday morning. “I think it is time to have a national conversation on gun control and I think the [Republican] conference is ready to have that and in a respectful way,” said Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio.
Here’s an easy way to start that conversation that shouldn’t offend anyone—look at the enforcement of current gun laws and analyze where they can be tightened up. The National Rifle Association has long argued that lawmakers are too focused on enacting new gun laws to pay attention to the lax enforcement of thousands of gun laws already on the books.
The NRA issued a statement Tuesday expressing shock and horror at the "horrific and senseless murders in Newtown." When it comes to gun legislation, the statement said, "The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again."
There will be a "major news conference" Friday from the NRA at which further details will be revealed.
“The NRA represents law-abiding gun holders,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. “I think you’ll find that they are among the leading advocates for keeping guns out of the hands of criminals.”
It is unlikely that the NRA would be amenable to limiting the types of guns that can be purchased, and it remains to be seen how they would approach expanded background checks. The NRA has provided monetary support to politicians who opposed a United Nations treaty on gun ownership and who opposed President Obama’s “antigun” Supreme Court nominees, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Regardless of what the NRA does, the conversation on gun laws has begun. Vice President Joe Biden has convened a working group among Cabinet officials to discuss the contours of an assault-weapons ban and other issues about access to guns. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., will introduce legislation next year to ban assault weapons and is already coordinating with House Democrats on the measure. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is open to discussions about barring high capacity magazine clips and improving background checks.
Now it’s time to figure out the details, even if not everyone is ready for it. “It’s in the national conversation. I don’t see any reason not to talk about it,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Rebecca Kaplan and Jim O'Sullivan contributed contributed to this article.