By Mike Lillis - 09/02/12 05:30 PM EDT
The Democrats' approach to gun control is far too timid and needs a boost of courage to be effective, some leading gun-control advocates are charging.
The draft language of the Democrats' 2012 platform — set for a final vote this week in Charlotte, N.C. — argues that current safeguards protecting the public against gun violence are insufficient and urges "an honest and open conversation about firearms."
The document also calls for "reasonable regulation" governing guns, including laws banning assault weapons and requiring all gun sellers — not just licensed dealers — to perform background checks on potential buyers.
Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group founded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino (D), said the Democrats are being far too cautious.
"The platforms are largely irrelevant, except as evidence of how confident a party feels on a topic, and the Democratic language on guns is a terrific example of how completely they blow this issue," Glaze said Friday in an email.
Glaze said the Republican platform endorses policies that "the public, including gun owners, strongly oppose," a reference to recent polls showing broad support for certain controls on guns.
"But at least they take a stand," he said of the GOP. "The Democrats mumble some gauzy generalities.
"That’s irresponsible, but it also happens to be rotten politics," he added. "It turns off their base, and it will not persuade one single Obama hater to sit this one out."
Most of the gun language in the Democrats' draft platform mirrors what was in the 2008 document, but the call for an "open conversation" about gun control — something that's been all but absent for years on Capitol Hill — is a new addition.
The provision marks a subtle shift in messaging for Democratic leaders who have been reluctant to press for tighter gun control — or even hold hearings on the subject — for fear of a political backlash.
But the issue has been tough to ignore this Congress in the face of a long series of headline-grabbing shooting sprees stretching back to the very first days of the 112th, when then-Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) was critically injured during a rampage that killed six people in her district.
Indeed, the draft platform's call for a public debate on guns is pulled almost directly from President Obama's reaction to the Giffords shooting.
"Clearly, there's more we can do to prevent gun violence," Obama wrote in a March 2011 op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star. "But I want this to at least be the beginning of a new discussion on how we can keep America safe for all our people."
Democrats, in recent years, haven't always been open to such a public airing. Indeed, when gun-control advocate Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) arrived on Capitol Hill in 2009 and started pushing for a hearing on the issue from the Democratic leaders who then controlled the House, they turned him down.
"I never thought the issue would get to this point where we can't even have a conversation," Quigley lamented last month.
Perhaps with that in mind, even those gun-control advocates supportive of the Democrats' 2012 platform are approaching it with a good deal of caution.
Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said the Democrats are taking "exactly the right approach" by emphasizing the need for an honest debate on the nation's gun laws. But he warned that there's been "a huge disconnect" between what Democratic leaders say about gun control and what they do.
"If you can't even get a hearing, you have to question how much they mean it," Gross said by phone Thursday.
Even an in-depth and serious debate about gun laws would be ineffective, he added, if lawmakers don't enter into it with open minds.
"That's Democrats and Republicans alike," Gross said.
As was the case in 2008, the Democrats' draft platform pushes back hard against accusations that the party hopes to do away with guns altogether, a charge frequently made by the National Rifle Association (NRA).
"We recognize that the individual right to bear arms is an important part of the American tradition, and we will preserve the Second Amendment right to own and use firearms," reads the draft, which was approved by the Democratic National Committee's platform committee in Detroit earlier this month.
But the Democrats also emphasize a belief that "the right to own firearms is subject to reasonable regulation."
"We can focus on effective enforcement of existing laws, especially strengthening our background check system, and we can work together to enact commonsense improvements — like reinstating the assault weapon ban and closing the gun-show loophole — so that guns to do not fall into the hands of those irresponsible law-breaking few," the draft statement reads.
The NRA has supported more funding for the existing background check system, but the group opposes extending the filter to non-licensed gun venders.
Asked Friday if the group supports tougher enforcement of existing gun laws, an NRA spokesman declined to comment.
Gross said the Democrats' platform is a stark contrast to the GOP's blanket opposition to new gun restrictions. He accused Republicans of "shutting the conversation down" on behalf of the powerful gun lobby.
"How can an elected official responsible for policy write off the possibility of policy as part of the solution?" Gross asked. "It's galling."
Still, Glaze suggested the Democrats' apprehension in approaching gun issues is as much to blame for Congress's inaction as the GOP's opposition.
"This president has done nothing but expand gun rights, but the NRA will go after him with everything it’s got," Glaze said. "At some point, Democrats will figure out that silence is not a communication strategy."