Democrats Offer Smorgasbord of Gun Options

Democrats are throwing out lots of options on gun control, hoping that one or two of their ideas might stick. Republicans are waiting to see what happens.

Improvements in background checks would be the easiest to pass in Congress if the proposed changes don’t get gummed up with more controversial elements like the much maligned assault weapons ban. Background checks have been identified by gun control advocates as the best way to curb gun violence. Forty percent of gun sales take place at private gun shows where no background checks are required, and 19 states don't send names to the national database that identifies people who are legally prohibited from owning guns--drug abusers, convicted felons, people with restraining orders on them, etc.

Even so, lawmakers are also focusing on assault weapons, ammunition, video games, and mental health issues. Democrats have yet to tip their hand on how they will proceed: Either to insist on a big package that could be shot down by opponents or offer individual slices of the package, which may doom some ideas but bolster others. Democratic lawmakers and aides have said they want to make sure their response to the Newton, Conn., massacre and other gun crimes is wide-reaching, encompassing mental health and violent imagery in the media as well as gun restrictions. But they also want to be pragmatic.

Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., sits on a House Democratic task force on guns. He told National Journal that he would prefer to deal with background checks first, since it has the broadest support, and tackle other issues after that. "There’s evidence that in certain states where they tightend their background checks, they dramatically reduced the gun crimes. That would be the fastest way to make an impact," he said. But he also acknowledged that he would support whatever package Democratic leaders adopt, and he doesn't have the final word on these decisions.

A new assault weapons ban will bring out some of the biggest fights, both within the Democratic party and between Republicans and Democrats. Some gun control advocates consider the previous ban, which expired in 2004, almost useless. It was riddled with loopholes (i.e., grandfathering in existing rifles) and still proved a giant political lift the last time around. (Members lost their seats for supporting it in 1994.) Forcing votes on it could anger pro-gun, moderate Democrats.

Gun rights advocates say an assault weapons ban is a ridiculous, emotional response to mass shootings. “You ban something because it looks evil,” said Richard Feldman, who heads Independent Firearm Owners Association. “Would your pain be lessened if your son, your parent, were shot with an older rifle, a Remington?”

Yet Feldman is supportive of expanding background checks, saying they should conducted at gun shows as a means of preserving responsible gun owner culture. Feldman is among the gun owner representatives invited to the White House this week to discuss the issue. “The people who say, ‘Plug the gun show loophole,’ they’re the people who really want to put gun shows out of business,” Feldman told National Journal before the White House meeting. “I want to call it the Gun Show Preservation and Protection Act. I want to preserve and protect that institution.”

Feldman suggested a 48-hour federal license for all firearms sellers at gun shows. Buyers could have their names and Social Security numbers run through the national database on site. It usually takes about 30 seconds. But, he added, the fix would only drive criminal gun buyers to the black market. Let’s say such a system would be put into place, he posited. “We fixed it? That’s sad if that’s what you think. … It would not cut down one little bit on the criminal misusage of a gun.”

Much of this debate has yet to be aired out. Vice President Joe Biden is holding heavily publicized meetings with a wide variety of stakeholders on gun issues, including the National Rifle Association, with the clear intent of broadening the conversation and appealing to the public to support more gun laws. Look for a sweeping set of proposals on guns and violence to come from the White House, perhaps as soon as next week. Until then, everyone’s ideas are welcome, particularly those of gun owners and gun dealers.

Republicans are expected to block anything that smacks of new restrictions on guns, but it’s difficult to get anyone in the party to admit that on the record. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., told Roll Call last month that “gun control is not something that I would support,” but has been notably silent on the issue since then. Republican leaders say they will wait until Biden’s recommendations come out to respond, according to aides. House Speaker John Boehner promised nothing more than to “take them into consideration.”

Democrats on Capitol Hill are attacking the gun issue from a host of angles that are not necessarily related to the Biden initiative. That could mean that they are looking for the proposals get the most traction before championing one. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., heads a House Democratic task force on gun issues that is expected to release a set of proposals in February. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., has introduced four separate proposals—one to ban high-capacity ammunition that allows several bullets to be fired in seconds, one that would require face-to-face purchasing of bullets, and two that would bolster background checks for gun buyers, particularly at gun shows.

In the Senate. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., will introduce a bill that requires background checks for all people buying bullets or magazines. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., will lead the charge on banning assault weapons and limiting high-capacity ammunition. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., will lead the effort to expand background checks to private gun sales. About 40 percent of the country’s gun sales occur at gun shows, where no background checks are required if the seller is a private citizen.

The gun issue could be a winner for Democrats politically, even if they can’t pass anything into law. Polls show that the public is receptive to restrictions on gun ownership, particularly in terms of preventing criminal records from obtaining them. (That idea was endorsed by 95 percent of respondents to a CNN poll in December.) There is less agreement on other ideas. The same poll found only 62 percent of respondents favored banning assault weapons or high-capacity ammo, and only half of the men in the poll supported those options.