Supporters of universal background checks believe they can succeed if they frame the issue as one about keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, and not taking away anyone else’s.
“If you explain to the hardest-core gun enthusiasts that no one is going to take their gun away . . . very few people are going to vote against you for voting on that bill,” said Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group founded by Bloomberg that includes 900 mayors.
But they face a well-organized, powerful lobby that includes gun manufacturers and the NRA. The group and its allies frame the issue as restricting the ability of law-abiding citizens to protect themselves and their families, a strategy that has been very successful in the two decades since the original assault weapons ban passed Congress.
They scored a small but significant victory Thursday when Congress tucked into a six-month funding bill several measures that would make some temporary gun rights provisions permanent.
Among them: A broad definition of antique guns that can be imported into the United States, and a provision barring the government from asking gun stores to take physical inventory of their stock to know when guns have been stolen. The government is also prohibited from studying what guns are most commonly used by criminals and where they came from.
“I think you’ve seen the NRA’s effectiveness,” said former Rep. Vic Fazio, a California Democrat who voted for the original assault weapons ban and narrowly won re-election in 1994, the year his party lost control of the House. “It’s become a party-line issue for the Republicans.”
The numbers appear to work against gun control supporters. Earlier in the week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said that a ban on assault weapons would have a hard time getting even 40 votes in a chamber where Democrats control 55 seats. A measure to ban large ammunition clips is expected to have a tough time as well.
“It divides the Democrats,” Binder said. “No party leader really wants to highlight divisions in the party.”
Brian Malte, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said that wavering lawmakers may not be revealing their true intentions before they get a chance to talk the issue through with their constituents.
“When it’s time to vote, it could be very different,” Malte said. “What somebody may be signaling now may not be what they’re going to do.”
There had been small hints of agreement, but talks have broken down.
One of the Senate’s more conservative members, Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn, has been working with one of the chamber’s more liberal stalwarts, New York Democrat Charles Schumer, on language for background checks that could be acceptable to both sides.
It isn’t clear when or if a window of opportunity might open. It was thought that the scale of the public shock and horror over the Newtown rampage could make this time different. Malte said he’s seen more people volunteer for the Brady Campaign than at any time in the 17 years he’s been there. Glaze said the mayors group has dozens of organizers scattered around a dozen states. Both said that they would continue to press for change, whether Congress acts soon or not.
“Regrettably, this problem is not going away,” Glaze said. “And neither are we.”