Arizona shootings unlikely to change federal gun laws

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 10, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Federal gun control proposals may accelerate following the Tucson massacre in which an Arizona congresswoman was seriously injured, but they'll still face high legal and legislative hurdles.

With Republicans controlling the House of Representatives and a Supreme Court majority embracing Second Amendment rights, significant new congressional action appears unlikely. At most, lawmakers may try to pick around the edges.

"I think the odds of something passing the House of Representatives are very, very slender," said David Kopel, research director with the Colorado-based Independence Institute.

Some lawmakers, for instance, have suggested banning high-capacity gun magazines, some capable of carrying 30 rounds or more. Kopel, who also teaches law at the University of Denver, said the idea would face resistance from gun rights groups.

Gun control efforts were a hard sell even before Republicans regained House control this year. But this can't be reduced to a simple of matter of gun lobbyists thwarting the public will. When it comes to guns, the public will itself seems split.

Gallup polls consistently show that roughly 4 in 10 Americans report owning guns. Other polls show Americans are roughly equally divided between those who want stricter gun laws and those who want to keep gun laws as they are.

The status quo, in other words, has a lot of defenders on and off Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers in May 2009, for instance, re-introduced a loophole-closing bill requiring background checks of people who buy firearms at gun shows. The bill vanished without a trace, as similar bills have done for many years. And while a bill to tighten interstate gun trafficking restrictions eked out 18 co-sponsors, a House resolution commending the National Rifle Association quickly secured 134 co-sponsors.

A 1994 federal assault-weapons ban originally authored by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California expired in 2004. Conceding the political obstacles, Feinstein didn't introduce assault-weapons legislation in the last Congress.

Feinstein is currently recovering in California from recent knee replacement surgery.

"I'm looking at all of the options," Feinstein said Monday. "I'd like to talk to my colleagues on both sides of the aisle about this."

Any future gun control effort will run smack into the NRA, which has nearly 4 million members and a famously muscular approach toward politics.

One example of its clout occurred last Congress, when House Democrats explicitly exempted the NRA from provisions in a campaign finance overhaul package. The NRA loophole was the only way House leaders could win support from enough rural Democrats. Nonetheless, the bill died in the Senate.

The NRA reported spending $2.5 million on federal lobbying in 2009, the most recent year for which complete records are available. The organization's political action committee reported spending an additional $9.9 million on campaigns last year, Federal Election Commission records show.

In another telling sign of the organization's political stature, its executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, is paid more than $1.1 million a year, IRS tax filings show.

NRA spokeswoman Rachel Parsons said Monday that "at this time, anything other than prayers for the victims and their families would be inappropriate."

On Capitol Hill, gun rights advocates hold key positions. The NRA last year gave its highest-possible "A-plus" legislative rating to Rep. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who's now the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Monday, Smith hinted at his skepticism about additional gun control measures.

"It is disappointing that some lawmakers and special interest groups are using this weekend's shooting as a vehicle to push for their own personal political agendas," Smith said.

Public campaigns often mobilize in the wake of high-profile shootings. Some succeed, but modestly.

Following the April 2007 slayings of 32 people at Virginia Tech, for instance, at least seven states including North Carolina and Pennsylvania enacted laws intended to improve ongoing background checks.

Separately, Congress passed legislation authorizing improvements to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Last year, this enhanced program included upwards of $20 million in grants that helped states including Idaho, Texas and Florida improve reporting on gun purchasers.

Any gun control bill that does make it through Congress, or through a state legislature, also will have to survive potential judicial scrutiny that's been emboldened by recent Supreme Court rulings.

In particular, the court in 2009 ruled that the Second Amendment broadly protects an individual's right to own firearms, regardless of any membership in a state militia. The ruling in McDonald v. Chicago doesn't prohibit gun control laws, but it does make it much easier to challenge them as unconstitutional.

"Self-defense is a basic right, recognized by many legal systems from ancient times to the present day," Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority, adding that "citizens must be permitted to use handguns for the core lawful purpose of self-defense."

(Marisa Taylor contributed to this article.)

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