Gun control was shot down in the House of Representatives last week, but that doesn't mean it's dead.
State legislatures in California, New York and even Utah are pushing tougher firearms restrictions. A variety of lawsuits against gun manufacturers are winding through the courts. Grass-roots groups across the nation are launching anti-gun campaigns. And in light of recent national polls suggesting growing support for gun control, President Clinton and top congressional Democrats believe the House vote will have the political recoil of a .357 magnum, and are vowing to raise the issue relentlessly over the coming months.
Republican leaders say they are not worried about a backlash, partly because a senior Democrat filed the amendment that led to the House bill's demise, partly because they went on record for the first time in support of mild gun control measures, partly because they believe polls exaggerate the issue's political firepower. But the momentum is hard to deny; in the tense aftermath of the Littleton school massacre, even the House debate focused not on whether gun control is necessary, but on how much gun control is necessary.
The issue is showing no signs of going away, either in Congress or anywhere else. "You've still got an opportunity, and you've still got an obligation, to do the right thing and pass real legislation that will strengthen our gun laws, not weaken them," Clinton said yesterday in an appeal to Congress during his weekly radio address.
On the other side of the issue, a number of states have adopted measures to protect the gun industry from municipal lawsuits, including Texas legislation signed into law Friday by Gov. George W. Bush, the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. And as it demonstrated with its vigorous and successful lobbying of Congress last week, the National Rifle Association can still mobilize its 2.8 million members to combat gun control.
Many analysts credited the NRA with helping to sweep the Democrats out of power in 1994 after Congress enacted the assault weapons ban and the Brady bill with its background checks on most firearms purchases. In a message to its members Friday, the NRA leadership made it clear it intends to keep the pressure on. "Be sure to thank those representatives who supported our right to keep and bear arms, and remind those lawmakers that have not been supportive that you will be paying close attention to future votes," the message said.
As the House debate showed, the politics of gun control can fluctuate from district to district; rural areas tend to oppose gun control, urban voters generally support it, and suburbs are harder to predict. But recent polls confirm that overall, Americans have less patience for guns, which are used in about two-thirds of the nation's homicides. A Gallup poll found 79 percent support for mandatory registration of all firearms, up from 60 percent in 1980. A Pew Research survey found that 65 percent of the nation believes gun control is more important than the right to bear arms, up from 57 percent in 1993.
The biggest shift in attitude, according to Pew director Andrew Kohut, has been among suburban Republican women. Some analysts believe the rising support for gun control is connected to declining worries about crime, now that violent crime rates have dropped nationwide for the past seven years.
"As people have felt less threatened by crime, there is less concern about perhaps having to defend oneself against crime by having a gun, and as the overall level of violence in society declines horrifying incidents like the Columbine shootings stand out as all the more horrifying," said Kent Marcus, a professor at Capital University law school.
Yesterday, politicians from both parties were blaming each other for the demise of the House bill. Democrats pointed out that four-fifths of the House Republicans voted in favor of the crucial amendment that weakened the bill's gun control provisions, while four-fifths of the Democrats voted against it. Republicans noted that the amendment was filed by a senior Democrat, Rep. John D. Dingell (Mich.), and that most Democrats voted against the final bill even though it would have established mandatory safety locks for all handguns.
In a statement yesterday on behalf of the House leadership, Rep. J.C. Watts (Okla.), chairman of the House Republican Conference, accused Democrats of turning their backs on "a strong bill . . . and trying to shift the blame."
GOP consultant Craig Shirley, whose clients include the NRA, believes the Republicans will suffer little if any political fallout from the vote. "You can twist a poll to say just about anything," he said. "The fact is, the intelligentsia likes gun control, but the people don't."
Still, Democrats sense a winning issue. When the Dingell amendment passed shortly after midnight Friday, exuberant Democrats chanted "Six seats! Six seats!" -- a taunting reference to the number of seats they need to regain control of the House in 2000. Led by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), whose husband was shot to death on a Long Island commuter train, a delegation of Democratic female lawmakers are about to embark on a cross-country gun control campaign.
The next legislative battle will rage around the "juvenile justice" conference committee, as lawmakers from both houses of Congress try to reconcile differences between a bill passed by the Senate in May with fairly extensive gun control provisions and a House version that has none. Democrats are already warning that they will settle for nothing weaker than the Senate bill, and many admit privately that they will be delighted to use the issue as a club against suburban Republicans in 2000 if nothing passes the GOP-controlled Congress.
"We won't let this issue go away," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). "There's been a sea change in America, and we know we're on the right side of it."
But long before that election, gun show politics is certain to be shaped by developments in city halls, county courthouses and state capitols, where the issue has taken unpredictable turns this year.
In Utah, for example, a volatile gun control debate is splitting the GOP and upsetting the conventional political wisdom in what has long been considered a pro-gun state. After two shootings by deranged killers in downtown Salt Lake City, Mormon Church leaders questioned state laws that allow just about anyone to carry concealed firearms. Gov. Mike Leavitt, a Republican, then backed measures to prohibit guns in churches and schools and to make it more difficult for mentally ill people to buy firearms. Many Utah Republicans adamantly oppose gun control, but others have warned that they will lose control of the legislature if they ignore polls indicating widespread support for the new measures.
Meanwhile, the California legislature is moving forward with a bill to limit individuals to the purchase of one handgun a month, as well as other gun control proposals; Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, is ready to sign them into law. In Ohio, Missouri, Colorado and several other states where the NRA had hoped to win new laws allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons, the momentum has turned and the measures have either been defeated or withdrawn.
More than a dozen cities, including Los Angeles and Chicago, have filed lawsuits broadly patterned on the wave of litigation brought by states against the tobacco industry. So far, though, the NRA has scored clear wins in Georgia, Maine, Texas and at least half a dozen other states that have adopted laws blocking those suits. But many cities, including Boston and the District, are passing legislation of their own to crack down on handguns.
"This is not going to go away, because there is a very broad sentiment among mayors across the country that gun violence and gun safety are issues they must address," said J. Thomas Cochran, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which has helped coordinate gun violence initiatives by cities for the past two years. "There is a lot of momentum to take action on this issue at the local level."
The question is whether that momentum will seep into congressional races in 2000. Freshman Rep. Thomas Tancredo (R-Colo.) is at ground zero of the gun control debate; the massacre at Columbine High School took place in his district. On Friday, the father of a victim picketed his district office, denouncing him for supporting Dingell's amendment. Tancredo said his office received about 1,000 calls on his votes last week, about half of them denouncing him for supporting the Dingell amendment that weakened the original bill's gun control measures, the other half denouncing him for supporting any gun control measures at all.
"Politically, this is just a no-win situation," said Tancredo, who was elected with 54 percent of the vote in 1998 after leaving his job running a conservative think tank. "I know Columbine changed everything for everyone. . . . I'll just have to deal with the consequences."