Can Gun Control Survive Congress?
In March, 2009, a few weeks after new Attorney General Eric Holder said, at a press conference about the capture of alleged members of the Sinaloa cartel, “There are just a few gun-related changes that we would like to make, and among them would be to reinstitute the ban on the sale of assault weapons,” sixty-five House Democrats sent him a letter. “As strong supporters of the Second Amendment, we were very concerned to see your recent remarks suggesting that the administration will push for the reinstatement of the 1994 ban on ‘assault weapons’ and ammunition magazines,” they wrote. “We would actively oppose any effort to reinstate the 1994 ban, or to pass any similar law. We urge you to abandon this initiative and to focus instead on effective law enforcement strategies to enforce our current laws against violent criminals and drug traffickers.”
In the aftermath of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, last week, much of the focus from those who support stricter gun-control laws has been on President Obama. That’s not entirely wrong. But it’s Congress—and some of the Democrats in it—that will prove the real obstacle to getting something done. This is the reality of gun control and Democratic politics, the way it has been for almost two decades.
Come January, 2013, and the beginning of the 113th Congress, not quite four years after that letter was sent, only fourteen of the people who signed it will still be in the House of Representatives. Two, Indiana’s Joe Donnelly and New Mexico’s Martin Heinrich, have just been elected to the Senate. One, Pennsylvania’s John Murtha, died in 2010. The rest are no longer in Congress. A few retired, or went to the private sector, but most simply lost their bids for reëlection.
Democratic politicians and operatives look at competitive districts and purple states and they see winnable races that gun control could lose them. So they have found a new breed of candidate for those contests—people who either don’t take a stand on guns, or who trumpet their support for firearms and the N.R.A. at every opportunity. And the Party has shied away from the issue, kept broad new legislation that might once have been a Party priority from coming up for a vote for fear of what such a vote might do to their most vulnerable elected officials, never mind their prospects at the national level. The evidence that gun control really does hurt Democrats, or that avoiding it has helped them, is disputed, but the strategy did at least appear to be working in 2006 and 2008, when the Party took over districts that had seemed unwinnable, or close to it. Now, though, those seats are largely back in G.O.P. hands, and post-2010 Census gerrymandering has made some of them even more solidly Republican. Many of those Democrats who’ve been voted out of office may have been pro-gun, but there may have been situations in which they could have been cajoled into voting with their party, consequences be damned. And the Republicans who’ve replaced them don’t have to worry about moderation on tough issues like this one.
After Newtown, though, there seems to be momentum in favor of new gun-control legislation. On Monday, Senators Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, and Mark Warner, of Virginia, both Democrats who have been vocally pro-gun, suggested that they could potentially support re-authorization of the assault weapons ban. (On Wednesday, however, Manchin took a step back, saying, “I’m not supporting a ban on anything, I’m supporting a conversation on everything.”) Perhaps more important, in a speech about Newtown that he gave on the Senate floor Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, long a fervent supporter of gun rights, hinted that he, too, is open to new legislation. He offered no specifics about what he has in mind. Still, people who know him were convinced after his speech that he’s ready to break with the N.R.A., maybe for good, in part because of the shocking nature of what happened at Newtown, and in part because of the way the group treated him when he needed its help during a tough reëlection fight two years ago.
“Reid really sought out the endorsement of the N.R.A. … and there was a very strong understanding that he was going to get [it], and then they did not endorse him,” a former Reid aide familiar with the 2010 campaign said. “I don’t think he gives a shit about those people at this point. And he also has a long memory.”
The former aide added, “I know the Senator reasonably well and he’s talked very openly about his embrace of gun culture. He grew up in Nevada, hunting, he has a lot of respect for it, really believes in it in his bones, to his core, but there’s a hell of a big difference between the values that surround that as part of his history and the notion that some madman can walk into an elementary school and light up a classroom.”
The support of Reid, Manchin, and Warner would not be enough, though, for Democrats to pass even something relatively popular—and arguably not all that restrictive, or effective—like the assault-weapons ban. Next year, there will essentially be fifty-five Democratic votes in the Senate, counting the replacement-to-be-named for the late Daniel Inouye and the two independent senators who caucus with the Party. But even assuming that every one of those fifty-five support the ban, they’d still be five short of the sixty-vote cloture threshold that’s unofficially needed to pass almost anything of consequence in the Senate lately. And it’s not at all safe to assume that those fifty-five votes are in the bag.
In 2004, when the original assault-weapons ban expired, some members of Congress mounted an effort to reauthorize it. At the time, six Democratic senators voted against the measure. One was Reid; three are out of office now. Two others—Montana’s Max Baucus and Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu—remain. Landrieu’s office did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement provided by his office, Baucus didn’t signal any new position on the ban. Instead, he talked about “the culture of violence in our society—questions that deserve careful reflection on everything from access to mental-health care to the video games our children play.” He added, “As I reflect, I am listening carefully to my bosses in Montana, and it is clear that any national discussion must also take into account the values Montanans expect me to protect.”
“Max supports the constitutional rights of responsible, law-abiding gun owners, and enforcing the laws on the books to protect people from violence,” a Baucus spokesperson said. At the same time, “he believes a tragedy of this magnitude should absolutely spark meaningful and reasonable debate about what more we should do to keep our communities safe.”
Assuming Baucus and Landrieu remain opposed to the ban, that brings supporters down to fifty-three Democratic votes in the Senate. And there are others who may well bolt.
Back in 2009, when their sixty-five House colleagues sent that letter to Holder to declare their opposition to assault-weapons legislation, three Democratic senators—Baucus and fellow-Montanan Jon Tester, and, separately, Alaskan Mark Begich—also wrote to the Attorney General and expressed the same sentiment. Subtract Tester and Begich, and that’s fifty-one Democratic votes for the ban.
And there are five other Democratic senators who have previously either expressed opposition to the assault-weapons ban or voted against it in some form—Bob Casey, of Pennsylvania; Tim Johnson, of South Dakota (who was in the Senate in 2004 but did not vote the day the reauthorization was considered); Tom Udall, of New Mexico; and the newly elected Joe Donnelly, of Indiana, and Martin Heinrich, of New Mexico. The worst-case scenario for gun-control supporters is that they lose all of them and slip down to forty-six votes. That said, while they might remain tough gets, all five have at least suggested that they could be won over on some sort of legislation.
That’s still nine votes away from cloture. It’s hard to see how the ban’s supporters can get enough votes from the other side of the aisle to make up this kind of deficit. There are only two Republican senators who can be counted on: Maine’s Susan Collins, the only one of nine Republicans to vote for reauthorization in 2004, and Illinois’s Mark Kirk, who, while serving in the House, sponsored a bill to reauthorize the ban—and who will reportedly return to work in the Senate in early 2013, a year after he suffered a stroke. Even adding those two to the yes column, supporters would still be seven votes short (or twelve, if they can’t capture Casey, Johnson, Udall, Donnelly, and Heinrich). Three other Republican senators—Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, and John McCain, have made noises about considering gun control, but doing so would be tough for Rubio if he decides to run for the G.O.P.’s Presidential nomination in 2016. As for McCain, this wouldn’t be the first time that he’d talked about being open to the assault-weapons ban while at the same time making it clear he wasn’t actually open to it at all.
All this is moot if the House won’t pass the bill. When the 113th Congress begins, there will be two hundred and thirty-four Republicans in the House, sixteen more than are needed for a majority. Factor in the remaining Democrats who wrote to Holder, and the ban is thirty-one votes short. Again, there are a couple Republicans who seem like certain yes votes: Florida’s Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who co-sponsored Kirk’s bill, and New York’s Peter King, who has publicly supported the ban in the past. That leaves a deficit of twenty-nine votes. A few other representatives—including one Democrat who signed the Holder letter, Nick Rahall, of West Virginia, and a couple Republicans—have given some preliminary signs that they could be won over, but that still wouldn’t be enough.
If the bill were instead voted on in this Congress—and, according to the New York Times’s Jonathan Weisman, “Democratic leadership” is asking House Speaker John Boehner to bring the ban up for a vote by Saturday—the situation for its supporters could be even worse. There are currently a hundred and ninety-one Democrats in the House, and two hundred and forty-one Republicans. Twenty-six of the Democrats who signed the Holder letter remain in office until next year as well. Presumably some of them, now free from the burden of protecting their seats, might switch over. But the baseline is still just a hundred and sixty-seven votes for the ban.
Anything is possible, especially in the wake of something like the Newtown shooting, but it’s difficult to see the political calculus that leads to a few dozen Republicans switching sides on this. Just as the makeup of the House Democratic caucus has changed, becoming more liberal, the G.O.P. side has become filled with members who don’t have to fear a Democratic opponent but need to be concerned about a primary challenge from their right.
Still, many Democrats remain optimistic that something can get done, that Newtown has altered the congressional math on this issue.
One of them is Elizabeth Esty, the newly elected Congresswoman whose district includes Newtown (her predecessor, Chris Murphy, is moving up to the Senate). “I think we are in a changed landscape. I think the world has moved. And there are moments in our nation when things that were deemed to be previously acceptable are no longer acceptable, things that were deemed impossible are now imperative,” Esty said by phone as she was on her way to a service for Victoria Soto, the twenty-seven-year-old teacher who reportedly died protecting her students.
Asked about her support, specifically, for an assault-weapons ban, Esty said, “I have been on record supporting that. I’d have to look at exactly how that’s drafted—the objective, though, is gun-safety laws that work…. I don’t understand why a disturbed twenty-year-old young man has more firepower to walk into—blast his way into—an elementary school than my niece serving in Kabul, also twenty years old, has at her disposal at a checkpoint at a U.S. Army base.”
John Lapp, who as executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006 helped recruit some of the Party’s pro-gun members of Congress, also said he thought the landscape has shifted. “I think when you look and hear and understand a tragedy like this, I think there are moments in time when people go beyond the usual politics,” Lapp said. “You can’t underestimate this kind of tragedy and what this was.” But, he cautioned, “as much as it is about Democrats, if John Boehner and the Republicans decide that they’re going to stonewall and not take a fresh look at this issue and a fresh approach, then nothing will happen.”
Representative John Yarmuth, a Kentucky Democrat, got attention Monday when he apologized for having “been largely silent on the issue of gun violence over the past six years.” (He has, nonetheless, had consistently low ratings from the N.R.A.—“the only F I’ve ever been proud of,” he said.) “I think we can get an assault-weapons ban, maybe something on high-capacity magazines,” Yarmuth told me. “Public pressure will always supersede the influence of a trade association, and that’s what I’m counting on…. If we move quickly, the N.R.A. … won’t have time to mobilize.” But, he warned, “the longer we go, if we do wait, say, ‘We have to have hearings, blah blah blah,’ I think the chances of getting something done decrease.”
As the most vivid memories of Newtown fade, and a midterm election approaches, vulnerable Democrats could start to worry about paying a political price for a pro-ban vote. But the former Reid aide doesn’t think that’s too much of a concern. In a post-Citizens United world, the N.R.A.’s coffers, which had once seemed so threatening, could easily be matched by a few rich supporters of gun control—or even just one.
“If the N.R.A. has got twenty million dollars that they’re going to kick in, a guy like Bloomberg—or anybody—can step out of the woodwork and say, ‘Here, I’m going to give you cover from the N.R.A.,’ and it wouldn’t even be a big check to write,” the former Reid aide says. “I know people on our side of the aisle are scared about it, but when I see someone like Warner … Manchin, and even Reid, and not just hinting—Reid said change the laws, Manchin talked specifically about an assault-weapons ban, as did Mark Warner—that’s very meaningful.”
Photograph by Xinhua News Agency/Eyevine/Redux