The decision this week by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to drop the assault weapons ban and a ban on high-capacity clips from the broader Congressional effort to curb gun violence sent an unmistakable message: The murders of 20 children in Newtown, Conn., in late 2012 has not changed politics as much as many people thought it might.
That’s a hard political truth to hear for many Americans who viewed what happened in Connecticut as a moment when the conversation about guns in America changed. President Obama pledged action. Vice President Biden chaired a White House task force to recommend legislative and executive solutions to curb gun violence. Longtime gun control advocates like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) insisted that this time — past mass murders involving guns had not moved the needle on a desire for stricter gun laws — was different.
And public polling suggested — and continues to suggest — that large majorities favor many of the provisions put forward by Biden’s task force. Nearly six in 10 Americans support banning assault weapons in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, and large majorities back expanding background checks to cover all purchases. A smaller majority — though still a majority — favor a ban on high-capacity clips.
And yet, as Newtown disappeared further in the political rearview mirror, the same politics that had turned guns into a dormant issue on the national political stage for much of the 1990s and 2000s began to take hold.
Senate Democrats up for reelection in Republican-leaning states in 2014 — think Montana, North Carolina, Alaska, Arkansas and Louisiana — were loathe to vote on things like the assault weapons ban out of the fear that their eventual Republican opponent would use such a vote to cast them as out of touch with the average person in their state. According to Reid, less than 40 Senate Democrats were ready or willing to vote for the assault weapons ban.
And the White House, perhaps sensing that it would need to spend its political capital on other priorities — debt ceiling/budget fight, immigration and perhaps even climate change — seemed to decide that passing something (even something that didn’t include major provisions like an assault weapons ban or a ban on high capacity clips) was better than passing nothing at all.
(President Obama did make clear that he supports the assault weapons ban. But there is a big difference between supporting a piece of legislation and putting the full force of your administration behind convincing wavering members of your party to vote for it.)
The simple fact is that despite all of the assertions that Newtown had changed or would change the political dialogue around guns in this country, it wound up reinforcing much of what we already knew about the difficulties of limiting gun rights.
Yes, measures to curb gun control are popular with the public at large. But Congress isn’t elected by a national vote, and the issue of guns, which, for many people, is a stand-in for a broader sort of cultural identity, splits along geographic lines — making what a national sample of the public thinks far less relevant.
And opponents of stricter gun laws were and are far better organized (and funded) than those trying to impose more stringent regulations. The National Rifle Association remains a devastatingly effective operation for which the gun control lobby has no ready answer. (Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group started by former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, have begun to level that political playing field but it’s not close to level just yet.)
When the Senate returns from its two-week recess in early April, then, the goal of passing meaningful — and deeply effective — gun legislation will ride entirely on broadening background checks. And, even on background checks there remains murkiness about whether a deal can be made — although the Plum Line’s Greg Sargent reports the two sides are talking again.
Many Democrats have insisted, and will continue to insist, that broadening background checks was the ultimate goal of the White House from the start and that if that passes, it represents a major victory for their side.
Perhaps. But, while broadening background checks — as well as banning straw purchases and expanding funding for school safety programs — will have real world impacts, the fact that two of the most high-profile proposals have been jettisoned from the final bill due to the fact that they would submarine its chances at passage remains telling.
For everyone who predicted that the political world had changed post-Newtown, the gun legislation the Senate will debate early next month proves one thing: It hasn’t.