Why There's New Hope For Gun Control

Fawn Johnson
National Journal

No matter what happens with the legislation being taken up by the Senate on Thursday, the sheer heft of the gun conversation could itself be a major victory for the gun-control movement.

“The media is so fixated on ‘now.’ If you don’t get it done now, you’ll never get it. We’ve never thought that. This has always been about changing the political dynamic permanently,” said Ladd Everitt, communications director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “I am seeing tons of energy on our side. I’m not giving up on anything.”

The political dynamic is definitely evolving. Senators are freely talking about the finer delineations of expanded background checks, definitions of how mental health should be listed, and the rudiments of the Second Amendment. The president and the vice president are also speaking loudly. There hasn’t been a substantive conversation on gun violence in Congress of this magnitude since the 1994 Crime Bill.

And no one is crying foul, at least not yet. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who says he is opposed to “gun control,” also said Tuesday that he is talking to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid about offering an amendment that would change the mental-health reporting requirements associated with the national database of people banned from buying guns. Reid said later in the day that he wanted a vote on mental health.

Two senators who have been hashing out a compromise measure on background checks are announcing their proposal Wednesday. It isn't clear whether the exceptions carved out by Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., for some private gun sales will pass muster with Republicans opposed to near-universal record-keeping, but it illustrates the sophistication of the debate.

Pro-gun Republicans are also ready for the fight. “I want to proceed to this bill. I want to debate it. I am not afraid of this bill,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., echoing statements from several in the GOP about the need to air out lawmakers’ views.

“My hope is a full and open debate with amendments,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who is cosponsoring two of the pieces of the gun package that will likely receive a go-ahead vote Thursday. Collins is like most Republicans in that she does not support universal background checks, the major thrust of the legislation. But she does want to see the other two pieces of the bill enacted: increased penalties for gun trafficking and school-safety grants. To do that, she needs to vote ‘yes’ on Thursday. And that’s what she says she will do.

If enough Republicans join her, the Senate floor will be open to a wide-ranging debate. The field of likely amendments has expanded from two on Reid’s must-vote list—bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazine clips—to four or more. Collins wants the gun-trafficking and school-safety provisions to be unlinked from universal background checks. The gun-trafficking measure is important enough to the gun-control movement that advocates will probably not stand in the way of that request, even though expanded background checks are their highest priority.

The background-check language in the gun bill, proposed by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., does not have enough votes to pass the Senate. But if there is a vote on it, that’s still huge progress for the Democrats and gun-control advocates. “We would be perfectly content right now to go to the floor with Schumer’s bill. Make people vote on this,” Everitt said.

The changes proffered by Toomey and Manchin will also be offered as an amendment, yielding an in-depth conversation on how far the background-check system should extend into private sales. On the Internet? Over the backyard fence? To your daughter?

Graham’s bill on mental-health reporting requirements, which Pryor cosponsors, also could receive a vote. Gun-control advocates oppose the measure because they say it shrinks the category of people prohibited from buying a gun due to mental illness. The Major Cities Chiefs Association sent a letter to Graham last week complaining that it does not encourage states to submit mental-health records to the national database.

Pryor shrugged off their criticism Tuesday. “They’re just pretty much openly for gun control,” he said. “In Arkansas, we see it from a different perspective.”

Of course, this may not end anytime soon. While there is no guarantee that Thursday’s procedural vote will gain the needed 60 votes, Reid pledged Tuesday to revive it in other ways if the vote fails. He can use another parliamentary maneuver to bring individual pieces of the gun-control agenda to the floor for votes. It could take months, which would give advocates the opportunity to hammer senators who hold things up.

While support for a filibuster among some Republican senators appears to be crumbling, gun-control advocates are getting ready with a “filibuster the filibuster” campaign in which survivors of gun violence will read the names of people who have been killed by guns.

“We’ll go as long as they go,” Everitt said.