Washington — As the debate on gun control intensifies in Congress, expectations of big changes in the nation’s gun laws are diminishing.
On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, Reps. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., Carolyn Maloney D-N.Y., Scott Rigell, R-Va., and Elijah Cummings, D-Md., unveiled a bill that would make “straw” gun purchases — buying a gun for someone else — a felony and increase federal penalties for gun trafficking.
The “Gun Trafficking Prevention Act of 2013” is the first bipartisan gun bill introduced in the House. Because of its modest scope, strong endorsement from law enforcement groups and — perhaps most importantly — lack of a ban on any type of gun or ammunition, it’s getting better odds at winning congressional approval than more ambitious proposals.
It’s similar to a bipartisan proposal introduced in the Senate last week.
“After the massacre in Sandy Hook (Elementary School), some said nothing would pass in the House…those skeptics are wrong,” Cummings said.
But he also said, “I acknowledge this bill will not solve every problem.”
The House is controlled by Republicans, who are more likely than Democrats to be gun rights advocates than members of the Democratic-controlled Senate.
But even in the Senate, there’s trouble for gun control advocates. One item of President Obama’s gun control wish list — a ban on military-style assault weapons — is considered D.O.A.
“We don’t expect the assault weapons ban to go anywhere,” said Samuel Hoover, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
There are several reasons Congress has trouble approving new gun laws.
The National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups have convinced a large segment of the public that an assault weapons ban is an attack on the Second Amendment and an attempt by the federal government to disarm the populace, said former Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas.
“It’s the fear factor,” he said.
There’s also a “fear factor” for lawmakers from states and districts with large numbers of gun owners.
An assault weapons ban was included in a 1994 crime bill, but expired in 2004. Stenholm was battered by an NRA campaign.
“The political graveyard is full of people who voted for this law in 1994,” an NRA spokeswoman warned lawmakers.
Stenholm voted against renewing the ban but lost his seat anyway and blames the NRA’s support for his GOP rival. Now he lectures at West Texas colleges and high schools about gun control.
“Young men understand a limitation of three bullets in a rifle to go hunting. They know it’s for conservation,” Stenholm said. “I ask them, “Why do you believe you have the right otherwise to have 100 bullets in a clip?’ I haven’t gotten a good answer to that.”
Hoover, of the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said opposition to the assault weapons ban is fueled by gun manufacturers who would lose a growing market.
“The bottom line is probably money,” Hoover said. “I do not see any other policy reason.”
Getting background checks through Congress
Besides toughening up on straw purchases and trafficking, Congress may approve an expansion of the background checks conducted by the FBI when someone buys a gun at a dealer. Sales at gun shows and between individuals are not subject to background checks and may account for as many as 40 percent of the nation’s gun sales.
The NRA opposes extending those background checks to every sale because, said the organization’s Chief Executive Officer Wayne LaPierre, “criminals will never submit to them.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, a gun-rights Democrat, said this week he would support the expansion of background checks. That makes it easier for other gun-rights Democrats to vote for the expansion. And several Senate Republicans, including Susan Collins of Maine and Mark Kirk of Illinois, are likely to cross party lines and vote for a universal background check bill.
Still, 60 votes are needed in the Senate to avoid a filibuster. And, once again, the House could be a problem.
“It will be a success if we get anything through,” Hoover said.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said last week he hopes to have gun legislation for full Senate consideration by the end of February.
But he has not indicated whether it will be a comprehensive gun control package or whether Leahy will let the Senate consider proposals separately.
Some Connecticut lawmakers are still optimistic Congress will approve a tough new gun laws.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said he’s not ready to quit on the assault weapons ban. “The assault weapons ban isn’t going to be easy to pass, but things that are worthwhile aren’t going to be easy,” he said.
Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, is also not ready to throw in the towel. “The issue still has a life of its own,” Courtney said.
Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, is less optimistic. “I think it’s an uphill fight,” he said. “The NRA and others have created a state of fear.”