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Advocates of stricter gun control legislation are hoping that history will not repeat itself.
Last Friday's shootings at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., have shaken the country, but it's unclear whether the intense feelings of the moment will translate into legislative action. Many times in the past, outrage over gun violence has dissipated before Congress has chosen to act.
The question in the new year will be whether public opinion, which currently favors more restrictions on guns, will remain engaged enough to overcome opposition from the National Rifle Association and the rest of the gun lobby.
"I am optimistic because the American people are speaking out more and more, demanding sensible gun policies and demanding that their leaders address gun violence," says Jon Lowy, an attorney with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
During a news conference Wednesday, President Obama called on Vice President Biden to lead an effort "to come up with a set of concrete proposals no later than January," which the president pledged to promote "without delay."
Several Democrats with strong records on Second Amendment issues have expressed a new openness to gun control legislation in recent days. A few congressional Republicans have said they're open to further discussion, without getting into too many specifics, but most have stayed quiet about gun control. Several Republicans at the state level have proposed arming teachers or administrators to protect against similar incidents.
"Gun control is not going to be something that I would support," Virginia Republican Robert Goodlatte, the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told Roll Call.
That means the chance for major changes to gun laws, while certainly greater than it was a week ago, is still unlikely, says Robert Spitzer, author of The Politics of Gun Control.
Popular Vs. Organized Opinion
A CNN/ORC International poll released Wednesday concluded that a slim majority of Americans "favor major restrictions on guns or making all guns illegal." An even higher percentage of the 620 adults surveyed this week favor a ban on certain assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Such support, however, is not overwhelming. And the lesson of lobbying in Congress is that a small but energized and organized minority can overcome widespread support that is expressed only in opinion polls — not in concerted action.
The National Rifle Association, the country's most prominent gun rights group, boasts 4 million members who are known to express their opinions frequently to members of Congress. The NRA is widely credited with helping to defeat members who voted for a ban on certain assault-style weapons back in 1994.
Of the 32 incumbent House Democrats who lost their seats in elections that year, 29 had voted for the crime bill that included the gun ban — including House Judiciary Chairman Jack Brooks, D-Texas, who died Dec. 4
Those victories helped Republicans win control of the House for the first time in 40 years.
"A lot of people credit the ban on assault weapons as the reason we lost the House," says Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. "When Democrats passed the assault-weapons ban, the Democrats got wiped out and the [Newt] Gingrich revolution got swept in."
'The Passions Of The Moment'
But, as Engel notes, there's been no indication from Republicans who are staunch defenders of gun rights that their positions are shifting.
Gun ownership "is an important right, and it is in the Constitution," Missouri GOP Sen. Roy Blunt told The Kansas City Star on Monday. "These laws are not going to change in the near future."
Given the renewed interest in the issue, though, Democrats are hopeful that a debate about gun control will progress in earnest — particularly if Obama keeps up the heat.
"Presidents can't convert large numbers of people from one position to another, but presidents can keep an issue in the news," says Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College. "If he continues to emphasize this in his remarks, that could have an impact."
But Pitney stresses that emotions triggered by a specific event, however horrific, can fade. Even during his briefing on gun control, Obama fielded several questions regarding the fiscal cliff — demonstrating the difficulty even the president faces in keeping the nation focused on a single topic for very long.
"The problem for proponents of gun control is the passions of the moment might fade over the holidays," Pitney says. "By the time Congress gets down to serious business in the new year, there may not be the same passion and drive that there is today."
Democratic senators have promised quick action in the new year on a renewed assault-weapons ban, broader background checks and limitations on clip sizes.
If the Senate is able to act quickly and Obama makes use of his bully pulpit, that would certainly put pressure on the House to do something.
But what, exactly? Already, some legislators are talking about launching into a broader debate beyond gun regulations that would also take into consideration matters such as mental health and cultural influences such as violent video games.
"It's such a diffusion of the issues that it will never get done," says Elliot Fineman, CEO of the National Gun Victims Action Council. "It's always their strategy — delay, delay, delay, knowing the public's attention span will dissipate."
Spitzer, who chairs the political science department at the State University of New York in Cortland, says emotions are running higher on this issue than at any time since the aftermath of the Columbine school shootings back in 1999. The current public outcry, he says, will make it far more difficult for the gun lobby to do its usual work of quietly bottling up legislation.
"The NRA functions best when people are not paying much attention to the gun issues and the NRA can operate," Spitzer says. "We know in past circumstances, when the public is outraged about a mass shooting, that's when the NRA is stymied."
For its part, the NRA has kept mostly quiet, to the extent of taking down the organization's Facebook page. The group released a statement Monday and plans to hold a news conference Friday.
Just weeks after the Columbine shootings, the Senate passed a bill with tough requirements on background checks and safety locks. But the House rejected the Senate approach, taking up separate bills relating to gun shows and youth culture.
Similarly distinct and ultimately unproductive approaches may be taken by the two chambers next year.
"The chief goal of the gun lobby ... would be to keep a bill off the floor of the House," Spitzer says. "They might feel the necessity of holding hearings, but getting a bill on the floor is the most critical friction point."
Intense public pressure coupled with a continuing push from the White House may move gun control legislation further than has been the case for years, but there's no guarantee that advocates of that approach will prevail in the end.
"Depending on the moral outrage of the public to get members of Congress to do anything legislatively is a long shot," says Fineman, of the gun victims group. "If the past is any guide to the future, I'd bet against."
Correction: December 19, 2012 12:00 am — A previous version of this story incorrectly said the Columbine shooting took place in 1989. It was in 1999.
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