The Capitol was a lively place in the days before the Senate rejected a series of bills to boost gun regulations. Lawmakers were engaged in a serious debate about curbing gun violence, even if they didn’t wind up voting for the options on the table. For a brief moment, it looked like something might actually pass.
Chutzpah was also on display. Sixteen Republicans flouted GOP leaders and the National Rifle Association and voted to allow debate on a Democratic-sponsored gun bill. Nine pro-gun Democrats then voted for a Republican-sponsored alternative lambasted by gun-control groups. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid reversed his long-held opposition to an assault-weapons ban. Ultraconservative Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., put his “A” rating from the NRA in jeopardy by sponsoring a background-check compromise with a fellow gun owner, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
Passing any substantive gun-control law was always a long shot, even after the nation cried out for a response to the mass shooting at Newtown, Conn. President Obama was angry at the defeat of the Manchin-Toomey plan, but some congressional veterans were less dispirited, noting that the Senate had actually been debating an issue of national importance—rather than just fighting over whether to have the debate—and elected officials were genuinely seeking answers. “This, to me, harkens back to the Senate of old, when there was more independence, and people were stepping away on issues of conscience and speaking up. I like it. I feel good about the Senate today,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a gun-control supporter.
“I think we need to have this debate. It needs to get aired out,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a gun advocate. “I see it as a conversation about Second Amendment rights and the problems of our society.”
Conversation is all they have left. Gun-control groups had pinned all their hopes on the carefully honed proposal by Toomey and Manchin to expand background checks for firearms sold at gun shows and on the Internet. It ended up five votes short of the 60 needed to pass. The Senate couldn’t even find enough votes to pass a mild proposal to strengthen penalties for trafficking guns.
Gun-rights advocates fared no better. Lawmakers also rejected the Republican alternative that would have updated the mental-health reporting requirements for the federal database of prohibited gun buyers.
Now we know. The gun-regulation fight is at a political stalemate. Congress is simply reflecting a divided public. Almost half of Americans (49 percent) think gun laws should be stricter, according to the most recent Associated Press/GfK poll. The other half (48 percent) think gun laws should remain as they are or be even less strict.
But there is no question that the Newtown tragedy and gun-control groups’ dogged lobbying have moved the debate toward an attitude of doing, well, something. Toomey won over Republicans such as Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Mark Kirk of Illinois and pro-gun Democrats such as Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. He also won the respect of many of his GOP colleagues, even if they voted against his proposal, because he stuck his neck out.
“They’ve taken a lot of heat on this. We’ve seen a definite shift in the dynamics of the politics of this issue,” said Ladd Everitt, communications director at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “Republicans need to be brought to a tipping point where they can no longer see political survival.”
One gun-rights group even argued that an unfaltering opposition to background checks would ultimately hurt the cause of gun owners. “I can’t justify morally that a person walks into a gun show, buys a gun from somebody without giving his name, a guy who can hardly speak English, and he walks out with that firearm, with no check, nothing at all,” said Alan Gottlieb, chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. “It’s not a tenable position for us to take. We’re marching off the cliff with it.”
Gottlieb directed his comments to a group of gun-rights supporters, explaining his support for the background-check amendment. It’s a better strategy to be in the room negotiating with lawmakers who are friends to your cause, he argued, than to stand outside protesting them. “You’re going to lose the war over time with that,” he said. He did not intend for his remarks to be public, but a videotape found its way to the Internet, to the delight of gun-control advocates. Dave Workman, a spokesman for Gottlieb’s group, said it is not walking back from the statements. “The video is what it is,” he said.
At the last minute, Gottlieb withdrew his support for the background-check measure when lawmakers were denied a vote on a separate proposal to restore gun-buying rights for white-collar criminals. The flip-flop was pure politicking, a move to appease gun-rights advocates after it became clear that the Senate legislation was going nowhere.
Supporters of gun control are smarting from the loss, but they can take heart in their progress. Lawmakers finally charged headlong into a debate they have been avoiding for two decades. Gun-owning senators grappled with a compromise, and several of them eventually voted for it. Pro-gun Republicans were also upbeat. “The only way we lose is that after this gun debate, nothing changes that makes sense,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
With both sides energized, the issue is likely to surface again—in 2014 congressional races. But if the public remains sharply divided and neither side gains an advantage from the election, the legislative result may be stalemate, once again.