Gun debate shifts to Capitol Hill

The heated battle over gun control shifts from the White House to Capitol Hill on Wednesday, as key senators will launch Congress’s probe into President Obama’s ambitious plan to tackle gun violence in the wake of last month’s Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear testimony from a range of stakeholders, including law enforcement officials, the powerful gun lobby and gun-control activist Mark Kelly, the husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was critically injured in a mass shooting two years ago this month.

ADVERTISEMENT
While Obama’s anti-violence strategy includes efforts to enhance the enforcement of current laws and improve the nation’s mental health system, much of the fight promises to center around Obama’s push for new gun restrictions, including proposals to ban assault weapons, prohibit high-capacity ammunition magazines and require background checks for all gun sales, not just those conducted by federally licensed dealers.

Highlighting both the complex nature of the gun-rights debate and the tough road facing gun-control advocates on Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Tuesday declined to support legislation to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips. 

“I’ll take a look at that,” Reid, a longtime opponent of gun reforms like the assault-weapons ban, told reporters in the Capitol.


The attitude toward gun rights, which has been a third rail of Washington politics for many years, has shifted dramatically following last month’s shooting massacre in Newtown, Conn., where a lone gunman with an assault rifle and high-capacity ammunition magazines stormed into Sandy Hook Elementary and killed 26 people, including 20 young children.

In response, Obama launched a task force — led by Vice President Biden — designed to develop a comprehensive strategy for reducing gun violence. It marked the first time a sitting president has fought aggressively for gun rights in more than two decades. 

But if the political environment has changed since Newtown, the arguments coming from stakeholders have remained largely the same. Gun control supporters, including most Democrats, have long argued that tougher gun laws would prevent tragedies like Sandy Hook; while gun-rights activists, including the National Rifle Association (NRA) and most Republicans, say such restrictions would only harm law-abiding gun owners, who would be left helpless to defend themselves against criminals with no compunction about breaking the law to obtain banned weapons.

Those battle lines will be on display Wednesday in the Judiciary Committee, where Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a gun owner with a long record of backing tougher gun laws, has indicated he’s particularly interested in examining efforts to improve the background check system for gun sales, improve mental health services and fight gun trafficking.

Leahy, who supported the 1994 assault-weapons ban, said recently that it was a mistake to allow it to expire a decade later. He suggested this month that he’d also support limits on high-capacity magazines.

“About the only gun law we have in Vermont is during deer season,” he said during a speech at the Georgetown University Law Center. “If you have a semi-automatic, you can’t have more than six rounds in it. Are we really as a nation saying we are going to be more protective of the deer than we are of our children? I think not.” 

Reid, despite his tepid response to the torrent of gun-control bills coming from his Democratic colleagues, has vowed to bring to the floor whatever legislation passes out of the Judiciary panel. House GOP leaders — notably Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (Va.) — have vowed to consider anything that comes out of the Senate, though both have historically opposed gun controls not backed by the NRA.

Foreshadowing a tough fight, Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, accused Obama this week of twisting the Constitution in arguing for tougher gun laws. Grassley said Obama has mistaken the Bill of Rights for a tool empowering the government to impose new limits on individuals, rather than a document that protects individuals from government.

“The president reads the Constitution differently than it has ever been understood, as a source of power against individual rights rather than a check on government power that guarantees those individual rights,” Grassley said Tuesday on the Senate floor.

Also rejecting Obama’s arguments for tougher gun laws, the NRA is set to use Wednesday’s hearing to amplify its calls for armed guards in every school as a national strategy for preventing gun violence against kids.

Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president, will tell lawmakers that lax enforcement of existing laws, combined with holes in the mental health system — not lenient gun laws — have led to the rash of mass shootings that have plagued the country in recent years.

“While we’re ready to participate in a meaningful effort to solve these pressing problems, we must respectfully — but honestly and firmly — disagree with some members of this committee, many in the media, and all of the gun-control groups on what will keep our kids and our streets safe,” LaPierre will say, according to prepared remarks released by the gun lobbying group Tuesday.

“Law-abiding gun owners will not accept blame for the acts of violent or deranged criminals. Nor do we believe the government should dictate what we can lawfully own and use to protect our families.”

Also scheduled to testify Wednesday are Baltimore Police Chief James Johnson, who heads the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence; David Kopel, a constitutional law professor at Denver University; and Gayle Trotter of the Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative group that advocates for smaller government, including fewer gun restrictions.