Politics & Government

30 years after Reagan shot, outlook dim for gun control

Jim Brady speaks at a press conference on the 30th anniversary of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, March 30. 2011.
Jim Brady speaks at a press conference on the 30th anniversary of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, March 30. 2011. MCT

WASHINGTON — On Wednesday, the 30th anniversary of the day that a would-be assassin wounded President Ronald Reagan and him, Jim Brady was asked how he's different today.

"Not being the same person that I was," Reagan's former press secretary said, speaking from his wheelchair as his wife, Sarah, held a microphone. "I used to be a track person. No more."

Then he made the point he'd come to the Capitol to make.

"I'm not going to run away from this," Brady said, as he began a daylong effort to renew his campaign for curbs on guns. The Bradys spent Wednesday visiting members of Congress, continuing their decades-long gun-control crusade.

Once again, however, chances are they won't get very far.

The public remains sharply divided, largely along geographic lines, over gun rights vs. gun control. Gun-rights groups, led by the National Rifle Association, dramatically outspend gun-control organizations on campaign donations and lobbying. President Barack Obama, though he urged gun-control action in an essay March 13 in the newspaper Arizona Daily Star, hasn't made a strong push. Congress is likely to remain preoccupied with budget battles, with lawmakers unlikely to tackle the divisive issue of guns.

"People are sensitive to the issue of gun violence because of the Giffords shooting ... but the gun issue is down on Congress' list of priorities, given high unemployment and two and a half wars," said Darrell West, the director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a center-left Washington policy-research center.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., is recovering at a Houston rehabilitation center after being shot in the head Jan. 8 outside a Tucson supermarket.

The Tucson incident — Giffords is the same age that is Brady was when he was shot — combined with the Reagan anniversary, gives gun-control advocates a fresh platform.

The Bradys spoke at a Capitol Hill news conference Wednesday, where Sarah Brady, 69, vividly recalled March 30, 1981.

It began as an uneventful Monday. She'd picked up her 2-year-old son, Scott, at his preschool and come home to watch soap operas. The program was interrupted with news of the Reagan shooting.

One report said Jim Brady had died. "I knew Jim better than that," she said, smiling.

Sarah Brady would become a leading gun-control advocate. "We enjoy our lives a lot," she said. "Scott is now grown and married." The couple lives in a Delaware beach town.

Jim Brady, 70, is paralyzed on his left side and can no longer see. He can still be quick with quips; at one point, as his wife talked about the gun lobby, he interrupted: "Evil empire."

They've enjoyed few successes; the most prominent was the 1993 "Brady Bill," which requires background checks for handgun or long-gun purchasers from federally licensed gun dealers.

But that's been a lonely highlight so far.

A 1994 crime bill passed with Democratic majorities that included a ban on assault weapons, but Democrats then lost their congressional majorities that fall. The ban's unpopularity, especially in the South and West, was cited as one primary reason for the losses. The ban expired in 2004. The Obama administration hasn't launched a serious effort to renew it.

After the 1999 shootings of Columbine High School students in Colorado, Democrats pushed hard to close the "gun show loophole," which permitted sales at gun shows without background checks. Vice President Al Gore's vote broke a Senate tie, allowing the measure to pass. But the effort died later in the congressional session, and Gore, in a tight 2000 presidential race as the Democrats' nominee, was largely mum on the effort.

No gun-violence horror ever has tilted the political world decisively toward strong gun control. In 1965, about two years after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, a Gallup Poll found that 44 percent of the nation wouldn't support a handgun ban. The month after the Reagan shooting, that figure climbed to 58 percent. Last year it hit 69 percent.

Cultural factors influence public attitudes.

A Pew Research Center poll taken Aug. 25-Sept. 6 found that in the East, 60 percent favored gun control while 36 percent supported gun rights. In the Midwest, 52 percent backed gun rights, and 44 percent preferred gun control. The South was split, though the tally was 61-36 percent for gun rights in Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee. The poll surveyed 3,509 people; its margin of error is 2 percentage points.

Urban Democrats are the most vocal gun-control advocates, but the national party has shied away from any major push.

"Democrats are fearful of the gun issue," West said.

Not only is there pressure from constituents, there's also the opposition of well-financed gun-rights groups that work to defeat lawmakers who favor gun control.

"The NRA and other gun-rights organizations are incredibly entrenched and have a powerful structure able to raise a great deal of money for lobbying and electoral politics. There's no indication, even with the Giffords shooting, that's going to change," said David Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, an independent group that tracks campaign spending.

The center found "gun-rights groups favor Republicans with their cash, and give a whole lot more of it than gun-control supporters.''

NRA officials didn't respond to requests for comment.

Gun-control backers say 2011 could be different, but their opponents expect little change.

The scorecard this year:

_ The White House.

"The fact is, almost all gun owners in America are highly responsible," Obama wrote earlier this month. But, he said, "Advocates for gun owners should accept the awful reality that gun violence affects Americans everywhere." Among his ideas was to make the background-check system "faster and nimbler."

Kristen Rand, the legislative director of the Violence Policy Center, found this weak.

"They felt pressure to appear to be moving forward," she said. "There's a lot they could be doing without legislation," such as tougher enforcement of some current laws.

_ Republicans.

Three weeks after the Giffords shooting, 16 House Judiciary Committee Democrats wrote Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, asking for hearings on gun safety. Smith said no.

Hearings "could have the unintended effect of prejudicing the ongoing criminal proceedings against (suspect Jared) Loughner in which his mental status is likely to be a key issue," Smith said. Loughner has been charged with 49 federal felony counts in connection with the incident. Six people died and 13, including Giffords, were wounded.

Republican congressional leaders aren't expected to budge anytime soon. According to the Pew poll, 78 percent of supporters of the tea party, the grass-roots conservative movement that helped give the GOP control of the House of Representatives last November, agree that protecting gun rights is more important than gun control; 18 percent said gun control mattered more.

_ Democrats.

Lawmakers are pushing two bills backed by the Brady camp.

In the House, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., has 100 sponsors for a measure that would ban high-capacity ammunition magazines. Trouble is, they're all Democrats.

Another bill, pushed by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and by McCarthy in the House, would make it easier to identify potential gun purchasers with histories of mental illness, drug abuse or domestic violence.

Will any of this go anywhere? The Bradys think so.

"I wouldn't be sitting in this damn wheelchair if we had common-sense legislation," Jim Brady said. He pledged to "fight fiercely."

Others weren't so optimistic.

"Everybody wants to make sure bad people don't get guns," said John Lott, at a conservative commentator and the author of the book "More Guns, Less Crime." "Ultimately they still differ on what will work."

ON THE WEB

House Judiciary Committee Democrats' letter on gun control

Rep. McCarthy's bill on high-capacity ammunition magazines

Sen. Schumer's legislation on background checks

Pew poll on gun control

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