The Politics of Gun Control Legislation
The recent violent phenomenon of tragic shootings such as the incident at Columbine high school in which 13 students and one teacher were killed and 23 other people were wounded has captured the attention of both the public and politicians alike and has stirred a need to take action. With shootings in Littleton, Colorado followed by Conyers, Georgia and yet another in Gibson, Oklahoma, gun control has become a pressing issue in congress. However while politicians use these incidents to maneuver their anti-gun legislation, public opinion and partisan support remains highly polarized. In addition, the fierce debate over gun restrictions are confronted with nearly 8o million gun owners in America and a federal guarantee by the Constitution to bear arms.
Gun Control as a partisan issue is complex. While anti-gunners typically are liberal and democratic, Democrats in Congress do not always support new gun legislation and instead vote against it quietly. It is also a notable fact that Congressmens opinions on gun control vary according to their electorate. For example, Jolene Unsoeled, a liberal Democrat from Olympia narrowly won her district by championing the NRA. Aside from the contributions the NRA provided to her election, she was able to entice enough swing voters away from her highly conservative challenger. Due to the recent school shooting a new group of swing voters who may change the prospective support for pro-gunners has emerged and they are the soccer moms, professional middle class women who have also significantly influenced the gender gap.
Senator Charles Chumar (D-New York), considered to be one of the Senates leading gun control advocates, states that Democrats are secretly as eager as the other side to delay action on gun control legislation . . . (Birnbuam, 7). It is also the case that the Republican Congress successfully stalls much of the gun control legislation with the help of a suppressing number of Democratic gun control opponents. Currently, three quarters of the House Republicans vote the NRA way and another 50 or so Democratic NRA loyalists have the ability to kill a gun control bill. Democrats like Bart Stupak (D-MI) believe in the American tradition of owning guns. Similarly, constituencies to the south and mid-west seem to be more supportive of gun ownership and sportsmanship, regardless of their opinions on other issues. Representative David Obey from Wisconsins dear country demonstrates this contradiction in beliefs by being both a card holding NRA member and a Democrat. Many democrats acknowledge that they may very well lose their seat entirely if they were to support gun control but vote right down the democratic line on everything else.
There are also many interest groups lobbying Congress on the issue of gun control. Hand Gun Control Inc. has nearly 430,000 members nationwide and is the largest gun control group lobbying Congress.Led by Sarah Brady, wife of Jim Brady, Handgun Control has recruited trial lawyers to sue gun manufacturers as they make little progress in Congress. They are also continually trying to raise more money for their anemic PAC (Richie, p.2) which barely raises 2 million dollars per election cycle. The American Bar Association also supports certain gun control regulation especially the enactment of measures to prevent easy access to firearms via unregulated sales. Other Senate provisions backed by the ABA would prohibit minors possession of military assault weapons, ban imports of high capacity ammunition clips, and child safety locks.However neither of these groups are as influential or as well financed as the NRA.
The NRA is perhaps the prevailing force in the gun control debate. The NRA has over three million dedicated members and an annual budget of $137 million. These statistics make the NRA one of the nations largest and wealthiest cause-oriented groups (Birnbaum, 212). The NRA is able to rally support when the right to bear arms is under attack. In 1999, perhaps the worst year in memory for mass shootings, the NRA tied for number 2 in FORTUNES Power 25 survey of clout in the capital, its highest rank ever (Birnbaum, 212). The NRA also has a well-earned reputation of being able to make the difference between victory and defeat in marginal districts throughout U.S. And despite the spree of killings that has occurred, has not lost its influence or support. Although some lawmakers are compelled by events to create gun-control legislation, the incessant lobbying of the NRA often keeps away the necessary support. Because so few citizens vote the NRA is considered very powerful by being able to attract a couple thousand voters for a candidate in an election. In 1998, the NRA spent $150,000 for pro-gun Senator Jim Bunning (R-Kentucky) and mobilized support for him which enabled him to win by just 6,766 votes.President Clinton even went so far as to proclaim the NRA is the reason the Republicans control the House (Birnbaum, 214).
In January of 2000, Clinton announced a $280 million dollar program that he termed the largest national gun enforcement initiative in the history of the United States (Mcmillion, 2). Congress had long been feeling the presidential pressure to legislate more restrictive gun law policies especially concerning juvenile gun laws. In response to this pressure, the Senate was able to pass a bill, S.254, to require that sales at gun shows offering 50 or more guns be subject to background checks, would prohibit minors possession of military assault weapons, ban imports of high-capacity ammunition clips, and require that handguns be sold with child safety locks. The House followed suit by passing its juvenile justice bill, H.R. 1501, with comparable gun provisions. However, discrepancies between the House and Senate over the regulation of gun shows eventually led to the demise of both bills.
This is demonstrative of the fact that Congress perpetually returns to ground zero in terms of gun control legislation.Disagreements about a 24-hour waiting period or a 3-day waiting period for conducting background checks ultimately result in failure. Furthermore, Clinton goes on to criticize that the measure expanding background checks creates more loopholes than it closes.
Another major reason that gun control legislation seems to fail is because it is born from public reactions. Anti-gunners often politicize a tragic incident such as Columbine to push radical or ineffective methods of restricting firearms. This is the same reason that new legislation also receives such a fierce reaction from pro-gun lobbyists. Republicans such as House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-TX) support what he terms common sense gun control. Still, many argue that what is really needed is simply more enforcement of the gun laws which already exist. As Wyane LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA put it, They cant get it through their heads that what is needed for prevention is prosecution, not more restrictions on the honest folks who own firearms (OMeara, 25) It is argued by some that there are already more than enough laws to prove that gun control does nothing to prevent criminal shootings.
Gun control advocates have succeeded in enacting several pieces of legislation aimed at curbing violent gun use. The Gun Free Schools Act,
enacted in 1994, conditions federal school funding to states with enactment of laws that mandate the expulsion of any student that brings a weapon into school. The best known and most effective gun control law is the Brady law, named after former Presidential press secretary Jim Brady who was shot during the assassination attempt on President Reagan. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms is chiefly responsible for maintaining the Brady law.
The law establishes mandatory background checks on gun purchasers. There are also long standing state laws requiring handgun owners to register their guns and have permits, therefore no need for Congress to legislate this point.
The republican 106th Congress has been successful in blocking or logjamming many of the attempts to restrict the sale and ownership of guns.
Legislation that has failed includes mandatory registration of all firearms, child safety locks, limits on the number of guns a person can buy within a given period of time, and making American-made handguns subject to standards “currently required of imports.”These proposed methods of gun control are criticized for being highly reactionary. For example raising the standard to import quality would eliminate many of the cheaper and more affordable guns from the market. It is a subversive maneuver to deteriorate the gun market and drive up the cost of handguns.
The media also plays an important role in the gun control debate. The media has promoted gun control legislation through the reporting of child violence. The media often spins stories that imply that guns and the availability of guns are the reasons behind violence and school shootings. However the media itself may be part of the problem by glamorizing tragedies and the criminals responsible. In the case of the repeated school shootings the media could be a sizable factor in copycat crimes.The argument can be made that censoring the media would be as ineffective to stopping gun violence as much of the proposed gun legislation.
A good example of how pervasive the gun control issue can be is the election of Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) who took a dramatic stand on gun control. She is considered to be a single-issue candidate. In 1993, McCarthys husband was gunned down and her son paralyzed by the Long Island Rail Road gunman Collin Ferguson. Enraged by this tragedy and Representative Dan Frisas () vote to repeal the assault weapons ban, she was able to raise over $600,000 for her campaign and defeat her opponent. Formerly, McCarthy had no political experience aside from the PTA and was a republican. Amazingly though, this one issue carried enough weight to win her the election. McCarthy received national attention for criticizing corporations for being the secret beneficiaries of gun violence in America and strongly attacks the NRA on such premises.
Lastly there is a question as to whether or not all these recent tragedies have even effected public opinion at all giving impetus to the politicians actions. A Gallup Poll in 1999 found that 66 percent of people wanted to see stricter gun control and 25 percent saying no change is needed. In a 1991 Gallup Poll it was 68 percent to 25 percent, which is hardly different at all. It would appear that these recent issues are so important that our representatives are making up their own minds to pursue gun control issues and acting as trustees on the citizens behalf. As McMillion states politicians are clearly voting based on values and motivations other than simple poll results (106). However, it also seems apparent that when confronted with the possibility of losing financial backing or votes, gun control advocates quickly slow their momentum.
In conclusion, the process of creating new gun control legislation is a slow moving and complicated process with which Congressmen must take many things into consideration. It is a contradictory issue comprised of people with very different motivations. People long for solutions that would prevent such tragedies as the Columbine and Oklahoma shootings, but at the same time gun control proponents exploit these shootings to gain support for their issues. It is the opinion of LaPierre that these kinds of circumstances cant actually be addressed by legislation and that vigorous prosecution of criminals is what is needed (Birnbuam, 216). On the other hand, it is also a well-founded argument that stricter regulation of handguns may actually result in lower frequencies of guns ending up in criminal hands. However, it is also apparent that the politics involved in gun control are not as clear cut as simply wanting to stop crime, ban all handguns, or the right to own a gun. Gun legislation is about conflicts in peoples culture and way of life. The dilemma is indicative of the vast variety of opinions that our legislators represent.
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Richie, Rob and Steven Hill. Guns, Voters, and Money. Tribune News Service 28
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Witt, G. Evans. Guns and Politicians. American Demographics 1 JULY 1999