President Obama's options on gun controlBy: Reid J. Epstein and Josh Gerstein
December 18, 2012
President Barack Obama’s call to action at Sunday’s vigil for the victims of the Newtown massacre has anti-gun advocates thinking that they may see progress, even though the president avoided details.
The White House continued that tactic on Monday — Obama discussed the shootings with Vice President Joe Biden and at least three Cabinet secretaries, but press secretary Jay Carney answered a slew of reporters’ questions by saying he did not “have a specific agenda to announce.”
But ideas are already circulating, including from Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who both have top National Rifle Association ratings and both expressed openness to new gun restrictions Monday.
Here’s POLITICO’s look at the top policy proposals circulating in the wake of the shootings and some of the obstacles they’d face:
Assault weapons ban
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), one of the principal authors of the law that expired in 2004, announced that she has been working on an updated bill for the past year and will introduce it on the first day of next year’s Senate session.
Obama is on record backing an assault weapons ban but has expended virtually no political capital to support one, which Feinstein hopes to change.
“With respect to the president, I placed a call to him this morning,” she said. “I’m hopeful that he will return it. I’d like to talk to him about his help in moving forward with this.”
Speaker John Boehner on Friday expressed sympathy for the Newtown victims and said the House “stands ready to assist” the community but mentioned no legislative action. His spokesman on Monday said he had no additional comment on any proposed gun laws.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), a supporter of an assault weapons ban, said he didn’t expect much to change.
“I hope I’m wrong, but I’m just being realistic,” King said. “Maybe this is the incident that is going to drive common-sense regulation forward, but we’ve seen so much in recent years and none of them have done anything.”
Obama himself said Sunday in Connecticut that the impact of individual government actions would be limited and would not necessarily stop future gun attacks.
“No single law, no set of laws, can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society,” he said. But he’ll need legislation to achieve any major action on the issue.
Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said his organization is in regular contact with the White House and is encouraged by Obama’s message. He does not believe Obama can make sufficient progress without Congress.
“I think to have a big impact you need policy,” Gross said. “We’re not at the point where we’re talking about executive action. It’s almost kind of limiting to think that way. I think this is a moment to do what’s we’ve needed on this issue for a long time.”
To push Obama — and members of Congress — Gross will host a news conference on Tuesday at the Capitol with victims of several recent mass shootings. After meeting with members of Congress, the group will travel to the White House to deliver a letter to Obama, Gross said.
Earlier this year, the Justice Department made several changes to the federally run system for background checks on gun purchasers that Obama called for following the shooting spree that wounded then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). Those included: Informing states of other states actions that could affect eligibility to buy a gun even when federal law was silent on the issue and automating the upload of federal charge and conviction information into the national database. The feds have also given grants to states to help them get more of their data entered, and entered accurately.
In August of last year, the DOJ took executive action to force gun dealers in four states bordering Mexico to report to the government when gun buyers purchased multiple semi-automatic weapons — just as multiple handgun purchases are reported across the country.
Obama’s moves were noticed and denounced by the NRA, which was among those that sued over the multiple-purchase reporting requirement.
NRA official Wayne LaPierre predicted to The Daily Beast that the reporting requirement for the four border states would be expanded, something Jim Kessler, senior vice president for policy of Third Way, a centrist Democratic group, said he’d welcome being required nationally.
“That’d be great. Multiple sales are important,” Kessler said.
An NRA spokesman declined to comment Monday on any of the legislative and policy proposals.
Limiting sale of ammunition clips
A ban on manufacture of new, large-volume ammunition magazines was attached to the assault weapons legislation in effect from 1994 to 2004. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) have introduced legislation to reimpose the ban.
Manchin, an NRA favorite, seemed open to that idea, saying Monday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that as a hunter, “I’ve never had more than three shells in a clip.”
However, some gun law experts said such a ban is unlikely to do much to reduce mass shootings like the one in Connecticut, particularly involving a dedicated shooter.
“One has to realize that swapping a magazine out is a matter of a second or two,” UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh said. “You could fill up a bunch of magazines.”
Closing the gun show loophole
Requiring every person-to-person gun sale to be subject to a background check — long a favorite talking point of the gun control crowd — is perhaps the easiest for lawmakers to support but the most logistically difficult measure to achieve. The 1993 Brady law requires background checks for guns purchased by licensed dealers, but it does not address private sales.
From building a database that virtually every American could access to facilitate sales and the likely privacy complaints associated with it, it’s could cause a logistical bureaucratic morass for gun buyers and owners, not to mention the existing resistance to regulate person-to-person gun sales in the gun community.
Still, closing the gun-show loophole remains the holy grail of gun control advocates. The thought — if not specific legislation — has broad support from typical gun control advocates, including retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who reiterated his support for the idea at the Newtown memorial service Sunday.
Gross called the loophole “the big issue” in gun control circles and said as many as 40 percent of all guns are purchased through it.
“There are things we can do within the 60 percent to improve the system. The gaping hole is the 40 percent that don’t,” he said. “There’s no rational argument against it. We just haven’t been able to elevate the absurdity of that enough to have it translate it to our elected leaders in Congress.”
Limiting violence in movies, video games
The Newtown shootings also produced a flurry of calls for greater attention to the proliferation of violence in movies, television and video games.
“I get media’s focus on gun control. But [mainstream media] shows bias by failure to discuss impact of violent movies/video games on our culture,” former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer tweeted Sunday.
In a POLITICO column, former Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.) lamented the “harvest sown from violent, mind-numbing video games and gruesome Hollywood movies that dangerously desensitizes those who struggle with mental health challenges.”
But advocates are short on concrete proposals about how to limit the prevalence of violent movies, TV and video games.
Attempts to limit children’s access to violent materials were prevalent in the 1990s and led to technology like the V-chip that allows parents to block children’s access with violent content. However, advances in technology have made some of those efforts obsolete, while others have run aground in the courts.
The Supreme Court dealt a major blow to those efforts last year when it ruled, 7-2, in Brown v. Entertainment Software Association that a California law banning the sale of violent video games to minors was unconstitutional.
Volokh said he sees similar flaws in both the gun control efforts and those aimed at restricting media.
“The question is to what extent you can regulate millions of law-abiding users because of the misconduct of very few, especially in the shadow of constitutional protection,” he said.
Sissela Bok, author of a book about violence in media, said she opposes censorship but believes the government could encourage “media literacy” programs where teenagers are taught about the impact violent media can have on people. However, she said reining in violent media is likely more the purview of families than of government.
“Gandhi said we can start in our own lives to try to expand the territory where violence will not rule,” she said. “That’s what families can do right away.”