Pelosi uses Trump to her advantage
20 years after Columbine, Dems bullish on gun reform
Two decades after the Columbine shooting in Colorado, gun reform efforts have found new life in the nation's capital.
House Democrats have already passed two gun bills this year; the Democratic 2020 presidential contenders are embracing tougher gun laws as a centerpiece of their campaign platforms; and even some centrist lawmakers representing volatile swing districts are racing toward an issue that, for decades, has been considered a potential career-killer on Capitol Hill.
"We finally reached a point where the momentum has shifted on this debate and people overwhelmingly within my community want commonsense gun violence prevention," Rep. Jason Crow (Colo.), a freshman Democrat who represents a district a mile away from the site of the Columbine tragedy, said by phone Friday, a day before the 20-year anniversary. "Certainly, I think we've reached a tipping point after way too many of these tragedies."
Crow is a testament to the changing tide in Washington's approach to the Second Amendment. Last November, he picked off a veteran Republican, former Rep. Mike Coffman, with a campaign message that featured a full-throated promotion of tougher gun laws. As he headed into the Saturday anniversary of the Columbine shooting in his district, where he described a "somber" mood, Crow said he was merely responding to the wishes of voters.
"Folks haven't moved on. ... There's no moving on for these families," he said. "I campaigned a lot on gun violence prevention, and I did so because there was demand in the community."
That wasn't always the case. In the two decades after two high schoolers killed 12 fellow students and a teacher at Columbine, Congress enacted several laws loosening gun restrictions but adopted no new limits on the sale or ownership of firearms.
For Democrats, the reluctance to tackle the issue was rooted, at least in part, in the perceived blowback from the passage of the assault weapons ban in 1994, which was seen to hurt the party in subsequent elections, particularly in gun-friendly states such as Arkansas, Michigan, Washington and West Virginia. When former Vice President Al Gore lost his home state of Tennessee in the 2000 presidential race, the ban was considered a factor.
The political environment sapped the Democrats' appetite for taking up gun reform legislation on Capitol Hill. In 2010, when Democrats controlled the House, Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) requested hearings on background checks, only to be refused.
In the absence of federal action, states have moved to fill the void - usually following horrific mass shootings. Colorado adopted its own universal background check system after Columbine and tightened gun laws again after another massacre in an Aurora movie theater in 2012.
But some lawmakers lament that the calls for action fade too quickly with the passage of time.
"The tragedy, at least at a local level, is more traumatic," said Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.). "Action is taken, and then it kind of subsides for awhile."
Indeed, after the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) vowed to move on gun reform. Four months later, when the political pressure had softened and a Senate bill had failed, Boehner shelved the issue altogether.
The sands seem to have shifted in the 2018 cycle, when a long list of Democratic newcomers picked off Republican seats on vocal promises of fighting for tougher gun laws. Aside from Crow, that list includes Reps. Colin Allred (Texas), Sharice Davids (Kan.), Lizzie Fletcher (Texas) and Lucy McBath (Ga.), whose son was killed in a shooting.
"The politics have changed," said Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords, an advocacy group started by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was nearly killed in a mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz., in 2011. "This has gone from an issue that was considered a third rail to one on which candidates in states all across the country - blue, red and purple - are getting elected."
Ambler noted, with some amazement, that his group was still active in Fletcher's Houston district in the latest stages of her campaign.
"If I had told you even just a few years ago that in the closing weeks of the 2018 midterms we'd be spending millions of dollars going after John Culberson on the issue of gun safety, you would have probably told me that I was nuts," he said, referring to the former GOP lawmaker defeated by Fletcher.
Democratic leaders have taken notice. In February, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) brought to the floor a background check bill as one of her first priorities in the new Democratic majority. It passed easily, 240 to 190. Eight Republicans supported the measure, while two Democrats defected in opposition.
The bill has little chance of being taken up in the GOP-controlled Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has joined most in his party in opposing virtually all gun restrictions. Republicans argue that tougher gun laws would be ineffective in combating gun violence while eroding Second Amendment rights.
But Democrats are hoping to use the issue on the campaign trail heading into 2020 and consider it a promise of what they intend to do if they win the Senate and White House next year.
"Mitch McConnell might not want to take this up all he wants," Rep. Mike Thompson (Calif.), the chairman of the Democrats' gun violence prevention task force, said Friday in an interview. "But the fact of the matter is the American people want it taken up, and it's going to catch up with Mitch McConnell sooner rather than later."
McConnell's office declined to comment on Friday.
The road to the Democrats' newfound embrace of gun reform has been paved with bloodshed. The Columbine massacre was, at the time, the deadliest school shooting in the nation's history, but it has since been eclipsed by even more lethal episodes. The 2007 Virginia Tech shooting resulted in the death of 32 people; the Sandy Hook massacre led to the death of 26, including 20 young children; and last year, a lone gunman killed 17 students and administrators at a high school in Parkland, Fla.
Outside the classroom, mass shootings in recent years have targeted African American churchgoers in South Carolina, worshippers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh and country music fans on the Las Vegas Strip. In 2017, Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), the Republican whip, was shot by a gunman targeting the Republican baseball team.
The threat of new violence has plagued the Columbine anniversary this week, when an 18-year-old Florida woman said to be "infatuated" with the massacre flew to Denver and purchased a shotgun. Authorities say she killed herself on Wednesday but not before the manhunt led to the shuttering of the area's schools, affecting hundreds of thousands of students, including Crow's children.
"It underscored that fact that, you know, if nothing else, this issue has gotten worse, much worse, since Columbine," said Crow, a former Army Ranger.
Perhaps most significant to the debate is the fact that the rash of prominent shootings has led to a profusion of new gun reform groups, which are spending millions of dollars on advocacy and helping shift public sentiment in overwhelming favor of changes such as expanded background checks.
Yet another factor has been the 2008 Supreme Court decision solidifying the right of individuals to bear arms under the Second Amendment. While gun control advocates decried the decision, it has also tempered the argument from gun rights proponents that reformers are out to ban firearms altogether.
"Folks who, in the past, were opposed to any debate, discussion or legislation on gun violence prevention understand that there's not this conspiracy to take away everybody's guns," said Thompson, a Vietnam veteran and gun owner. "There's an idea that the one major gun organization was able to peddle that fear for so long seems to have changed."
Thompson's reference was to the National Rifle Association (NRA), a lobbying behemoth on Capitol Hill that's opposed to virtually any new restrictions on the sale or ownership of firearms. That group, too, has changed its tune since the Columbine shooting. In 1999, it advocated for universal background checks. Now it opposes the idea.
The NRA did not respond Friday to a request for comment.
Perlmutter said background checks would almost certainly be a first order of business if the Democrats gain control of Congress and the White House in 2020. Meanwhile, he said he's struggling as Coloradans relive the Columbine tragedy after 20 years.
"I realize," he said, "I'm a lot more raw about it than I thought I was."