Democrats Wary Of Tightening Laws

By Jonathan Weisman and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The largest mass shooting in U.S. history forced reluctant Democratic leaders in Congress yesterday to confront an issue that divides their party and holds considerable political peril: gun control.

Advocates of stricter gun laws, such as Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), met with Democratic leaders, determined to resurrect an issue that has been dormant since the shootings at Columbine High School near Denver in 1999. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) elicited a pledge from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) to hold a hearing on the shootings.

"We need to stand up and do something," said McCarthy, whose husband was killed in a gunman's rampage on the Long Island Rail Road in 1993.

But Democrats on both sides of the issue were skeptical that the 33 deaths at Virginia Tech would change a political equation that has turned in the favor of gun rights advocates. Even after Columbine, no major gun-control laws passed Congress.

Since then, restrictions on guns have eased, with the 2004 expiration of President Bill Clinton's landmark assault weapons ban, passage in 2005 of legislation shielding gunmakers from lawsuits, and a 2003 measure preventing local enforcement agencies from consulting police in other states on firearms traces.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) boasts of a favorable rating from the National Rifle Association, which lobbies against gun control, and House Democratic leaders are in no rush to jeopardize conservative freshmen elected from Republican-leaning districts in Indiana, North Carolina and Kansas.

"Unless we get some leadership from the White House, we're not going to take this kind of political damage bringing up something that would never become law," said Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.), a gun-control advocate.

Such hesitation underscored how dramatically the issue of gun control has changed since the shootings at Columbine eight years ago. They drew immediate congressional reaction: Bills were introduced to bolster background checks, force the inclusion of trigger locks with gun sales, and close legal loopholes that allowed firearms to be bought from gun shows without full background checks.

But the NRA helped scuttle those measures, and some non-partisan political analysts gave the gun lobby's campaign credit for the defeat of Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore in 2000.

In 2004, President Bush signaled that he would sign legislation extending a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines that had passed as part of Clinton's 1994 crime bill. GOP leaders allowed the law to expire without a vote.

The lapsed gun law was back in focus yesterday, amid evidence that Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung Hui used high-capacity ammunition clips that had been banned, allowing him to fire more rounds without reloading. If Democratic leaders cannot muster the votes to reinstate the full assault weapons ban, some suggested that at least the clip-capacity portion could be passed.

"It's hard to explain why a person needs a clip with more than 10 bullets in it," said Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.).

McCarthy said she will push even more modest legislation -- a bill to bolster the federal background-check system by funding state efforts to computerize records of mental illness and criminal convictions and to forward those records to the criminal background check system.

Still, even gun-control advocates expressed doubt that Congress would rein in the use of weapons or the ability to buy them. "Anytime an incident occurs, there's a little attention to it, and the attention dies away and nothing happens," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

The gun lobby maintained a studied silence yesterday. Lobbyists for the NRA said it is taking a wait-and-see approach to possible gun-control legislation.

"Let's see how it plays out over the next week or so," a pro-gun lobbyist said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because his employer did not authorize his talking to the press. "It's hard to strategize until you know what's happening. But so far, calls for gun control have been strangely muted."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company