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Democrats signal wariness on gun laws

Gun regulation was a defining issue of politics in the 1990s, but the gun controversy has faded since then. Why did the issue lose its potency? And will the Virginia Tech slayings revive it as a defining difference between the two parties?
US Republican presidential candidate George W. Bus
George W. Bush and Al Gore  argue during a debate in 2000; Gore argued for more stringent gun laws, a position that some Democrats said hurt him in November in Tennessee and West Virginia.Luke Frazza / AFP/Getty Images
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Democratic congressional leaders signaled Tuesday that they will not move swiftly to try to enact gun control legislation in the wake of Monday’s killings of 33 people at Virginia Tech.

In a briefing for reporters Tuesday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland did not commit himself to action on any specific legislation.

“The country and the Congress will have additional discussions, as is always the case after an incident, particularly one of this scope and tragic consequences,” said Hoyer. He added, “I don’t want to get into a debate with reference to what we need to do” in terms of legislation merely 24 hours after the shootings.

But in what may be an early test of House sentiment on gun regulation, Hoyer said the Democratic leadership would bring up for debate on Thursday a bill that would give the District of Columbia’s non-voting delegate the same voting rights that representatives have.

Attempt to overturn D.C. gun ban
A House vote on that bill was delayed last month by a GOP maneuver that would have overturned the District’s nearly total ban on gun possession.

When a reporter asked Hoyer whether Monday’s shooting would make it harder for the Republicans to again try to use the gun ban to derail the representation bill, he said, “I would hope.”

But it wasn’t clear whether there will be a vote on overturning the D.C. gun ban or whether Democratic leaders will use a parliamentary tactic to avoid a vote.

Many Democrats shied away from discussing gun policy proposals Tuesday, saying it would be unseemly so soon after the massacre.

Asked whether Congress should reenact a 1994 ban on certain types of semi-automatic weapons, freshman Sen. Jon Tester, D–Mont., said, “Really, to talk about anything to do with weapons at this point is way, way, way too insensitive and way, way, way too premature.”

Elected last November, Tester is a strong supporter of gun owners’ rights.

Caution from Montana Democrat
His Montana colleague, Sen. Max Baucus, who is up for re-election next year and who voted in 2004 against extending the ban on certain types of semi-automatic weapons, sounded a note of caution, “Let’s just let people think a little bit about all of this. All of this requires a lot of careful thought… let’s get more information first.”

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters, “When I feel it’s appropriate — which will be in a few days after we get over the grieving and all of that — I’ll talk about it.”

Schumer spearheaded Democratic efforts to regulate guns when he served in the House in the 1990s. But last year as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee he made a point of supporting strong gun rights advocates as Senate candidates in GOP-dominated states.

Schumer’s pick in Montana, Tester, told one sportsmen’s group during the campaign, according to the Associated Press, “I am pro-gun, I've got a lot of ’em. And what I tell folks is because of the Patriot Act we damn well better keep ’em."

In Virginia, Democratic candidate Jim Webb was likewise a supporter of gun owners’ rights.

Webb had argued in his 2004 book “Born Fighting” that Al Gore’s “position on gun control cost him the election (in 2000), not in Florida but in the Scots-Irish redoubts of Tennessee and West Virginia, both of which through history and logic should have been slam-dunk electoral votes in his favor.”

In his second debate with Bush in 2000, Gore had boasted that he’d cast the tie-breaking Senate vote on a bill to curb sales at gun shows.

Webb on Monday called the Virginia Tech shootings “an incredible human tragedy,” but like other members of Congress did not address legislation or policy.

Last month Webb used the arrest of one his aides for unwittingly carrying a gun into a Senate office building to underscore his support for gun owners’ rights.

When asked if he thought the D.C. gun ban should be overturned, Webb stressed his support for the Second Amendment and added, “I believe the Virginia law (which allows law-abiding people to carry guns) is a fair law. I believe that wherever you see laws that allow people to carry (weapons), generally the violence goes down.”

What has changed since Columbine
After the 1999 Columbine shooting many Democrats in Congress called for gun legislation but the GOP-controlled Congress did not agree on what measures to pass.

Now, for the first time since 1995, the Democrats are in charge. But one Democratic senator who has supported gun control in the past said it was not solely the Democrats’ responsibility to lead on this issue.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D–Calif., said to reporters, “Did you ask the Republicans what they want to do about this? We have to work together. This should not be a partisan issue.”

Boxer reminded reporters of the need to get 60 votes in the Senate to avert a filibuster.

“What are the chances we will pass any strict gun laws? You’d have to ask every single Democrat and every single Republican. We would need 60. In my opinion, I doubt that we have that, but maybe this (massacre) has changed some minds and we’d be able to get some common-sense legislation passed.”

Gun regulation was a defining issue of the politics of the 1990s, but the gun controversy has faded since then — with only one major battle over the question at the federal level in the past seven years, the passage of a bill prohibiting suits against firearms manufacturers in cases where a gun was unlawfully used.

Gun issue losing potency
The record of the past several years shows that gun control as a motivating issue has lost some of the power it once had, both for proponents and opponents of gun regulation:

  • In Virginia’s 2005 gubernatorial election, Republican Jerry Kilgore touted his gun ownership and Republicans criticized the action Democratic candidate Tim Kaine took as mayor of Richmond to rent buses to send activists to the Million Mom March, an event staged in Washington, D.C., in 2000 by gun control groups. But the issue didn’t seem to help Kilgore as he lost to Kaine by nearly 6 points.
  • In last year’s confirmation battle over President Bush’s Supreme Court nominee Sam Alito, Schumer of New York and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., criticized Alito for dissenting from two of his appeals court colleagues in 1996 who’d upheld a federal law banning possession of machine guns. But the issue did not loom large in the effort to defeat Alito; he won Senate confirmation with the support of four Democrats as well as all but one Republican.

In the 2004 and 2006 elections, Democrats seemed to want to signal that their support for some regulation of guns did not mean they were hostile to lawful gun owners.

In the 2004 campaign Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry made two highly publicized hunting excursions, one in Iowa in 2003 and the other in the swing state of Ohio, only a few days before the election.  Kerry’s Ohio goose hunting event was intended to give voters “a better sense of John Kerry, the guy,” Democratic strategist Mike McCurry told reporters.

Republican consultant Chris LaCivita said, “Since 2001 Democrats have increasingly downplayed gun control as an issue because it has not had the impact they wanted.”

A change from the Clinton Era
It’s a decided change from the politics of the 1990s, when President Bill Clinton fought with congressional Republicans over gun regulations. In the short run, Clinton won: Congress passed the Brady bill, which required a waiting period and background checks on gun buyers. The following year it enacted a ban on certain “assault-style” semi-automatic weapons.

But those very victories played a role in the Democrats' loss of the House in the 1994 elections.

During its consideration in 2004 of a gun manufacturers’ liability bill that did not ultimately pass, the Senate did vote, 52 to 47, to extend for 10 years the 1994 ban on certain semi-automatic weapons.

Among those voting to extend the ban were current Democratic presidential hopefuls Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd and John Edwards.

Among those voting “no” were GOP presidential contenders John McCain and Sam Brownback, as well as six Democrats, including now-Majority Leader Harry Reid.