Congress reacts to Obama’s gun control proposals

January 16, 2013
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(Jonathan Newton/Washington Post)

Much initial reaction to President Obama's proposals to limit gun violence is breaking down along predictably partisan lines, with Democrats expressing support and Republicans adopting a tepid wait-and-see approach.

But even some Democrats are taking a cautious stance. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) predicted recently that Obama's most ambitious proposal -- an outright ban on assault weapons -- has almost no chance of passing the Republican-led House.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), said Tuesday that House committees of jurisdiction will review the president's recommendations. "And if the Senate passes a bill, we will also take a look at that," Steel said.

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), a longtime gun control advocate whose husband was killed in a mass shooting on the Long Island Railroad in 1993, called on the the Democratic-controlled Senate to consider and pass a single comprehensive measure including most, if not all, of Obama's proposals.

"We know that a lot of Republicans in the House will probably vote for the background checks, a lot of them will vote for the mental illness [proposals]," she told CNN moments after Obama's speech. "So those are things that they will vote for. If we start taking them one by one, the chances in the House will be more difficult." Senate action on a comprehensive measure "might give us some strength, that might  give some members of Congress the spine to do the right thing," McCarthy said.

Even if the Senate passes a comprehensive bill, it is expected to face opposition from a mix of moderate House Democrats representing rural districts and virtually all House Republicans.

One of those moderate Democrats, Rep. Mike Thompson (Calif.), has been tapped to lead a House Democratic review of the gun proposals. He said Wednesday that his review team "will continue meeting with stakeholders on every side of this issue. And we will develop a comprehensive set of policy proposals that both respect peoples’ 2nd Amendment rights and help keep our communities safe from gun violence.”

But laying a starker line in the political sands, conservative Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), who recently led an effort to unseat Boehner as House Speaker, issued a sharply-worded retort to Obama's proposals: "The Second Amendment is non-negotiable," he said. "The right to bear arms is a right, despite President Obama’s disdain for the Second Amendment and the Constitution’s limits on his power. Congress must stand firm for the entirety of the Constitution – even if, but particularly so, when President Obama seeks to ignore his obligation to ‘preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.’ Taking away the rights and abilities of law-abiding citizens to defend themselves is yet another display of the Obama Administration’s consolidation of power.”

Huelskamp said Washington "must have a serious debate and honest discussion about what fuels a very small segment of the population to inflict harm and instill fear. This means holding Hollywood accountable for its culture of violence and death, and talking about mental health issues and the responsibilities of families and communities."

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) took a more measured approach, saying he welcomed the president's recommendations "and will consider them as the House continues to examine ways to prevent tragedies like the one in Newtown."

"However, good intentions do not necessarily make good laws," Goodlatte said, "so as we investigate the causes and search for solutions, we must ensure that any proposed solutions will actually be meaningful in preventing the taking of innocent life and that they do not trample on the rights of law-abiding citizens to exercise their Constitutionally-guaranteed rights."

Formal Senate consideration of the president's proposals is scheduled to begin Jan. 30, when the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold the first of several hearings on the issue. Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) has said that he plans to hold hearings that will account for the opinions of a cross section of groups, including the National Rifle Association, law enforcement officials and other groups.

Leahy, who attended Obama's speech at the White House Wednesday, said in a speech earlier in the day that his hearings “will ensure an open forum for a constructive discussion about how we can better protect our communities from mass shootings, while respecting the fundamental right to bear arms recognized by the Supreme Court.”

Obama's proposals on limiting gun violence included endorsements of several pieces of legislation long sought by Democratic, and mostly urban-state lawmakers, including the expired ban on assault weapons, a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips and a federal ban on gun trafficking.

The White House plan included bills authored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) that would ban high-capacity ammunition and require background checks at private gun shows. Lautenberg heralded Obama's "bold, comprehensive plan" adding that the ideas are ones that "the vast majority of the American public supports and the time has come to make them the law of the land.” 

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who introduced a federal gun trafficking bill in 2009, said the lack of a law defining gun trafficking as a federal crime "is shocking."

"By cracking down on illegal gun traffickers and their vast criminal networks, we can stop the flow of illegal guns and reduce the violence that plagues too many communities around New York and across the country," Gillibrand said.

But Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), whose immigration reform proposals earned a supportive nod from the White House this week, said he would oppose Obama's "attempts to undermine Americans’ constitutional right to bear arms.”

“Nothing the President is proposing would have stopped the massacre at Sandy Hook," Rubio said in a statement. "President Obama is targeting the 2nd Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens instead of seriously addressing the real underlying causes of such violence." Rubio charged that Obama "is again abusing his power by imposing his policies via executive fiat instead of allowing them to be debated in Congress. President Obama’s frustration with our republic and the way it works doesn’t give him license to ignore the Constitution."

Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Follow Ed O'Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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