How (most of) Obama’s gun control plan can pass Congress

January 17, 2013

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that I find it hard to believe Sen. Al Franken (D)  is really conflicted on whether an assault weapons ban is worth passing. But Franken is up for reelection in Minnesota in 2014, and Democrats still remember the role that the assault weapons ban played -- or at least the role they think it played -- in their 1994 rout. If you want to be pessimistic about gun control's chances in Congress, Franken's wavering is good reason to worry.


Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) is "undecided" on a new assault weapons ban. But that might all be part of the plan. (Cory Ryan-Getty Images)

But if you want to be optimistic about gun control's chances in Congress, the focus on the assault weapons ban might be reason to cheer. Sometimes it can be helpful for vulnerable legislators to pick one high-profile thing to oppose if it means they can support the rest of the package. Call it the public-option theory of gun control.

Think back to how the health-care debate went. The bill, as you've heard, was thousands of pages long, and the range of policies it included was vast. But the argument focused almost exclusively on a few pages that didn't even up in the final law: The public insurance option.

The public option was what liberals wanted most. It was what Republicans hated most. And, in the end, it's what conservative Democrats like Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Joe Lieberman (Conn.) used to support the final deal: By opposing, and ultimately killing, the public option, they could say they made the bill less liberal. But because the public option wasn't essential to the functioning of the legislation, they could do so without imperiling the rest of the law.

The assault weapons ban could end up playing a similar role in the gun-control debate. It's the one piece of gun control legislation whose name everybody knows. It's also the piece of gun control legislation that the NRA has had the most success organizing against. But it's actually not a very effective law, as Brad Plumer has detailed. Its definition of an "assault weapon" is hazy and superficial, the legislation is full of loopholes, and there's little evidence that it worked the first time. For those reasons, when I asked experts what we could do to reduce gun deaths, I barely heard a kind word about the assault weapons ban.

But on Wednesday, President Obama proposed much more than resuscitation of the assault weapons ban. As Greg Sargent noted, Obama's speech -- and his policy document -- actually focused on universal background checks, which are a much easier lift, and almost certainly more important in reducing gun deaths. Giving law enforcement more power to trace guns, stopping "straw purchasers," and focusing U.S attorneys on gun prosecutions could also matter quite a bit. Banning all high-capacity magazines probably matters more than banning some kinds of particularly scary looking guns. And those are only a few of the items on Obama's gun control wish list.

So here's one possible way the debate could go: The assault weapons ban could suck up all the attention only to die toward the end of the process, when Republicans and centrist Democrats kill the proposal in order to remain in the NRA's good graces. That will infuriate supporters of gun control, but it could help the laundry list of proposals behind the assault weapons ban to slip through as a compromise package. The result won't necessarily feel like a victory to supporters of gun control, but it might be one, and it wouldn't be possible if the assault weapons ban wasn't available to be thrown overboard.

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Dylan Matthews · January 17, 2013