WASHINGTON—Cries for stricter gun-control laws by some Democratic lawmakers following the Virginia Tech mass murders have been met with caution from their party leaders.
Other Democrats recommend steering clear of the issue, because it could jeopardize their party's recent gains in pro-gun Southern and Western states.
Bottom line: Don't expect gun-control legislation to result from this latest mass shooting.
To begin with, most Republicans don't support it, and those who once did have amended their positions. Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, for example—who leads the 2008 GOP presidential field—was a strong gun-control advocate when he ran City Hall. Now he says states should decide their own gun laws.
And many Democrats, too, are now persuaded that too much of the country favors gun rights to make gun control a winning issue for them.
"I don't think (House Majority Whip) Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) is someone who wants to see that going onto the agenda, I don't think (Sen.) Jim Webb (D-Va.) is someone who wants to see that going onto the agenda," said Dick Harpootlian, former chairman of South Carolina's Democratic Party. "We don't need to be distracted by gun control, abortion and gay marriage. We just need to leave those issues alone and focus on the incompetence of the Bush administration."
That's a switch for most traditional Democrats. They've long been identified as the party of gun control, from their reaction to the assassinations of the 1960s through the ban on semi-automatic weapons they passed as part of President Clinton's 1994 crime legislation.
So it was natural that veteran gun-control advocates like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., viewed the Virginia Tech tragedy as a catalyst to revive a debate that's been dormant since 1999, when the mass killings at Colorado's Columbine High School failed to result in gun-control legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., responded coolly to their pleas. Reid told reporters Tuesday, "I hope there's no rush to do anything. We need to take a deep breath."
Gun control hasn't been a front-burner issue recently with voters. A Gallup poll in January found that 50 percent of Americans were more satisfied than dissatisfied with the current state of gun control laws in this country, vs. 43 percent who felt the opposite. Seven percent had no opinion.
And few Americans, if any, spontaneously mention guns or gun control or consider it an urgent national priority, according to the survey. Mention of gun control as a top priority national was highest after the Columbine killings—and then was only 10 percent, according to Gallup.
Democrats began de-emphasizing gun control after losing control of Congress in 1994. And many Democrats believe that gun control sank former Vice President Al Gore in several key states in his 2000 loss to George W. Bush.
In their successful bid to regain control of Congress last year, Democratic officials recruited several pro-gun candidates like Webb—whose aide was recently charged with bringing a loaded handgun into a Senate office building—and Montana Sen. Jon Tester, who made gun-owner rights a key point of his campaign.
The results were Democratic gains in both the House and Senate from Republican-leaning states including Virginia, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and North Carolina.
Those gains could be eroded if Democrats try to push gun legislation through, according to Richard Stallings, chairman of the Idaho Democratic Party.
"Leave it alone," he said. "All of a sudden the old tie between the Democratic Party and gun control would be re-tied. It would set us back significantly. They would hand our heads to us out here."