A rush for new gun restrictions, but odds appear long

By James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2011; 11:05 PM

The road to firearms policy in America is paved in blood.

Every major change in the regulation of U.S. gun ownership was prompted in part by a national gun tragedy, such as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy or the attempt on the life of President Ronald Reagan.

The 1960s killings of Kennedy, his brother Robert and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led to the Gun Control Act of 1968, the cornerstone of gun law in America today.

The 1981 Reagan shooting, which seriously wounded press secretary James Brady, led to a bill in Brady's name requiring background checks before gun purchases - which through last year had prohibited more than 800,000 people from buying firearms.

Saturday's rampage in Tucson, which killed six and wounded 14, has already prompted members of Congress and gun groups to propose a variety of remedies meant to prevent future such shootings.

One congressional proposal would outlaw high-capacity ammunition magazines, such as the the 30-round clip found in Jared Lee Loughner's Glock 19 pistol, the weapon used in the Tucson shooting. The commercial sale of such high-capacity magazines was prohibited under the federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004.

"I don't call it gun control," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). "I call it common-sense gun laws." Another proposal from a group of mayors would add resources to tighten federal background checks.

Political observers are doubtful that there is political support for more gun laws or that the proposals would have made a difference in Arizona.

"This tragedy is not going to have the same kind of impetus for legislation," said Bradley A. Buckles, former director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which enforces federal gun laws. "I don't know what needs to be done. I don't know what you could do. People are going to get guns and shoot people. There are 300 million guns out there. We are close to the end of where we can regulate guns."

Pro-gun majorities in the House and Senate jeopardize any chance for gun legislation this year. On Tuesday, for example, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) did not list a single gun-related bill in a lengthy speech outlining his legislative priorities.

The National Rifle Association declined to comment on proposals. "At this time, anything other than prayers for the victims and their families would be inappropriate, " NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said.

The 1960s gun legislation focused on broad regulatory schemes, such as prohibiting commercial sales to felons, illegal residents, drug abusers and anyone who, like Lee Harvey Oswald, had been dishonorably discharged or renounced his citizenship.

Major gun-related tragedies do not guarantee legislation. No federal laws changed after the Columbine school massacre. The most heinous crimes, such as the Kennedy assassination, did not result in immediate change. Five years and the RFK and King murders passed before the 1968 act was approved. The Brady bill did not pass until 14 years after the Reagan shooting.

Assassinations and large-scale gun killings "on occasions have raised the level of awareness and increased the demand for some kind of legislation," said William J. Vizzard, a U.S. gun policy historian and professor at California State University at Sacramento, "but never enough to overcome the organized resistance, the NRA et al."

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) said they plan to introduce legislation banning the manufacture and sale of high-capacity magazines.

"The only reason to have 33 bullets loaded in a handgun is to kill a lot of people very quickly," Lautenberg said.

Some jurisdictions, including the District, Maryland, New Jersey and California, restrict sales of high-capacity magazines.

The assault-weapons ban was prompted in 1989 when 24-year-old drug addict Patrick Edward Purdy fired an AK-47 into a Stockton, Calif., schoolyard, killing five children and wounded 30 others.

But some critics say that the Lautenberg-McCarthy proposal would have little effect, because millions of the high-capacity magazines are already in circulation.

Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a gun control group, is focused on seeking tighter vetting of gun buyers, noting allegations about Loughner's drug abuse.

"The law says that drug abusers can't buy guns," said New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who co-founded the group. "Even though Jared Loughner was rejected by the military for drug use and arrested on drug charges, he was able to pass a background check and buy a gun."

Loughner purchased a Glock 19 semiautomatic pistol on Nov. 30 from the Sportsman's Warehouse. A year earlier, he had bought a single-shot Harrington & Richardson shotgun from the same store, less than a year after he was rejected for enlistment in the Army and within a year of his arrest for possession of drug paraphernalia.

The September 2007 arrest came during a late-night traffic stop, according to Pima County, Ariz., court records. A court docket indicates that the charge was dismissed after he entered a drug-diversion program.

John A. Strong, the chief of the FBI-run National Instant Background Check System, said the system can and does prohibit misdemeanor drug offenders from purchasing a firearm - if it can be determined that the person has abused drugs within a year. A conviction for possession of drug paraphernalia would trigger a delay, Strong said, while backgrounders checked to find out if drug traces had been found on the paraphernalia.

Drugs disqualified Loughner from enlisting in the Army, sources told The Post on Saturday. Military officials told Time magazine that Loughner admitted to the Army that he was a frequent marijuana user.

Strong also said that such an admission could have been reported by the military to the FBI if it was made during an official intake process. But a current and a former ATF agent said it was unlikely that Loughner would have turned up in the background-check database because his misdemeanor drug charge had been dismissed.

"You almost have to have convictions as opposed to arrests," said Jim Cavanaugh, a former senior ATF official.

ATF regulations state that a drug user does not have to be using drugs "at the precise time the person seeks to acquire a firearm."

The rule says an inference "may be drawn from evidence," such as a conviction for the use or possession of a controlled substance within the past year, multiple arrests within the past five years or failing a lawfully administered drug test in the past year.

According to statistics kept by the FBI, which runs the National Instant Background Checks program, drug abusers made up about 8 percent, or 65,000, of those who tried to buy firearms between 1998 and 2008 but were prohibited. The current number of people who are listed in the database as being ineligible to purchase a firearm because of drug abuse or addiction to a controlled substance is 2,092, or less than 1 percent of the6 million names, records show.

grimaldij@washpost.com Staff writers Paul Kane, Sari Horwitz, Clarence Williams and Josh White contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company