Gun control no longer a dormant issue

President Obama’s new call for tougher gun rules following the shooting of an Arizona congresswoman has energized gun-control advocates, but one leading Democrat isn’t holding his breath for reform.

Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee and a long-time proponent of stronger gun laws, said it’s unlikely any Second Amendment reforms will move through Congress while Republicans control the lower chamber. Obama’s push for tighter gun-sale screenings will help generate debate about the adequacy of current precautions, Conyers said, but significant reform is unlikely in the current political environment.

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“In the House, it’s going to be very difficult,” Conyers said Monday during a speech at the National Press Club in Washington. “I can’t predict that there will be passage.”

Other gun-reform advocates — who’ve been waiting two years for Obama to make good on campaign promises to tackle gun issues head on — were much more invigorated. 

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) said she’s hoping Obama’s move lends legs to her proposal to ban high-capacity ammunition magazines. Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, called Obama’s stand “the most significant statement from … anybody in the White House in over a decade on gun violence.” And Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) said any debate represents progress over the last Congress, when his requests for gun hearings fell on deaf ears among Democratic leadership.

“I’ll settle for just a discussion,” Quigley said Monday. “I couldn’t even get a hearing in the 111th Congress.”

Over the weekend, Obama called for tougher rules to prevent prohibited gun buyers — including violent felons, illegal immigrants and the severely mentally ill — from getting their hands on firearms. The announcement came roughly two months after a shooting rampage in Tucson, Ariz., left six people dead, including a 9-year-old girl, and injured another 13, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).

The lone suspect, Jared Lee Loughner, had been expelled from community college for disturbing behavior and denied entrance into the military for a history of drug abuse. Yet he was able to buy a firearm and high-capacity ammunition magazines from local, licensed gun dealers.

“A man our Army rejected as unfit for service; a man one of our colleges deemed too unstable for studies; a man apparently bent on violence was able to walk into a store and buy a gun,” Obama wrote Sunday in an op-ed in Tucson’s Arizona Daily Star. 

“I’m willing to bet that responsible, law-abiding gun owners agree that we should be able to keep an irresponsible, law-breaking few — dangerous criminals and fugitives, for example — from getting their hands on a gun in the first place.”

Obama did not address gun control in his State of the Union address. But after the speech, David Plouffe, a senior adviser to Obama, promised the president would soon tackle the issue. 

Throughout his two years in the White House, Obama has been largely silent on gun control. 

During his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama vowed to reinstate the expired assault-weapons ban. Frustrating gun-control advocates, Obama did not call for the 111th Congress to act on reinstating the ban, which would attract strong opposition from the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA).

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which endorsed Obama in 2008, gave the president an “F” for his first year in office. 

In his op-ed, Obama stressed his support for the Second Amendment, asserting that his “administration has not curtailed the rights of gun owners — it has expanded them, including allowing people to carry their guns in national parks.”

The president, in making his case for reforms, used the phrase “common sense” three times.

He is calling for three changes: (1) tougher enforcement of existing laws, notably the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which is designed to block gun sales to those barred from owning them; (2) new incentives for states to report information to NICS; and (3) a renewed effort to make NICS faster and more up to date.

Obama didn’t endorse any legislation, but called for “the beginning of a new discussion on how we can keep America safe for all our people.”

There’s some disagreement on Capitol Hill about whether legislation is needed to fulfill Obama’s goals. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, doesn’t think so.

“The president acknowledged that we need to make our existing laws work the way Congress intended them to,” Smith said Monday in an e-mail. “That doesn’t mean new laws are needed, but rather that the laws already on the books must be fully and effectively enforced.”

Quigley, however, disagrees. The Illinois Democrat said the only way to prevent gun sales to dangerous individuals is to require all sellers to screen through NICS — not just licensed dealers, as stipulated under current law. The exemption for unlicensed sellers — known as the gun-show loophole — “is the size of Detroit,” Quigley said. 

He and McCarthy are scheduled to introduce legislation Tuesday requiring all gun sellers to screen buyers through NICS — a proposal introduced last month by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

It remains to be seen whether the president’s plan will move in the Democratic-controlled Senate. A few Democratic senators who are up for reelection in 2012, including Sens. Jon Tester (Mont.) and Bob Casey Jr. (Pa.), support gun rights. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is also a gun-rights backer. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee, headed by Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), did not comment by press time. Leahy has a mixed gun rights/gun control record. 

Meanwhile, Conyers suggested that Democrats are “taking another look” at the political influence of the gun lobby to shape elections. 

“We can’t dismiss the fact that the [NRA] is the most powerful lobby of all the powerful lobbies, and that’s very inhibiting,” Conyers said Monday.

But the Michigan Democrat also noted that dozens of Blue Dog Democrats stood strong with the gun lobby in opposition to any reforms in the last Congress — and were soundly defeated at the polls in November.

“Politically, we’re taking another look at the NRA,” Conyers said. “Remember that half of the Blue Dogs that were decimated [in November] were all staunch NRA people. It didn’t save them.”