The Flow of Guns

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November 3, 2009
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Jared Feldman

Here in Washington, guns have a funny way of leaking into other issues. Since the 111th Congress convened just a few months ago, guns have infected the health care debate, thwarted voting rights legislation, complicated credit card reform, and threatened to derail the Defense Department Authorization Bill. Since our nation’s founding, guns have presented a continual politically potent issue. However, the constant attention from Congress and the president coupled with Washington’s omnipresent force — political expediency — means the specifics of firearm regulations continually ebb and flow. In the past 20 years, we have seen a tidal shift. Peaking in the mid-1990s with the passage of the Brady Bill and the Assault Weapons Ban, the movement for meaningful gun safety polices has since been in dramatic retreat.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) is one of Washington’s most powerful lobbies. Advocating for a broad interpretation of the Second Amendment and for lax gun regulations, the NRA isn’t simply a beltway phenomenon. Rather, it’s an organized grassroots political movement. With about four million members, the NRA, its affiliates, and its allies, have sowed a deep-rooted change in America and harnessed true grassroots support. National support for gun safety legislation has plummeted in the past few years. In 2007, a CNN poll found that 50 percent of Americans thought gun laws should be made “more strict.” In April of this year, a similar CNN found poll found that the number had decreased to 39 percent. Clearly, the organizing strategy of the gun rights advocates, exemplified by overly simplistic mantras like “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” is working. The NRA’s greatest success though, has been its ability to convert this grassroots momentum into discrete policy changes. Their approach has been strategic, incremental, and incredibly effective.

In contrast to the big bills that characterized the gun safety movement, gun rights advocates have focused on moving smaller, discrete pieces of legislation. The most conspicuous example is the expiration of the federal Assault Weapons Ban. During the 2004 debate to reauthorize this legislation, John McCain put it best: “On this [the assault weapons ban], the NRA rules.”
Approved a decade earlier as a component of the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill, the Assault Weapons Ban limited the sale of nineteen high-powered dangerous weapons such as Uzis, AK-47s and TEC-9s. The original legislation included a ten-year sunset provision that required the congress to act again or the legislation would expire. In 2004, the University of Pennsylvania National Annenberg Election Survey found that 68 percent of those polled wanted the Assault Weapons Ban renewed. President Bush supported the renewal legislation and announced that if presented to him, he would sign the bill. Senator John Kerry, then the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, returned to Washington to vote in favor of the renewal. The NRA’s goal, on the other hand, was simply to prevent congressional action on the issue.
Because of the sunset provision, inaction would drown the Assault Weapons Ban (AWB). In the face of public opinion and evidence of decreased violent crime, the NRA convinced the then House Speaker Dennis Hastert and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay to not schedule a time for the House of Representatives to vote on the renewal. They never did, and on September 19, 2004, the federal Assault Weapons Ban expired.

The NRA’s strategy of focusing on seemingly small and discrete measures that would have a large cumulative effect is fully evident this legislative season. As Congress pushed forward new credit card regulations, the NRA’s congressional allies offered an amendment to the bill that would allow loaded guns in national parks.  By itself, this amendment would simply make a Bush-era policy the law. A few weeks later, NRA allies again offered an amendment to an unrelated bill, this time the D.C. Voting Rights Act, which would give residents of the nation’s capital representation in Congress. During recent debate on this legislation, Senator John Ensign attached a provision that would override all D.C. local gun laws and replace them with new federal standards that are substantially weaker than the current set of locally specific regulations. The Ensign provisions would effectively legalize semi-automatic weapons in D.C. and remove handgun registration requirements. During a House hearing the previous year, representatives of the Secret Service and the metropolitan police force expressed deep concern about the impact of this legislation. To date, the addition of the gun amendment has stopped all progress on the D.C. Voting Rights Bill. Again during the debate in the Senate on the Transportation and Housing Appropriations Bill, an amendment was approved to allow individuals to check firearms in their luggage on Amtrak trains. While these provisions would have a significant public policy effect, more important is the impact they would have on setting new precedents; the total impact would be exponential.

Undoubtedly, the NRA is the most powerful force on gun issues. However, there are some preliminary signs that the tides may again begin to turn. The most recent NRA-backed provision, sponsored by Senator John Thune, which would have required all states to respect gun permits issued by other states, was defeated in the Senate. Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a new gun-safety advocacy organization, takes a different tack than the NRA. This is a “grasstops” organization made up of local elected leaders. Led by Michael Bloomberg of New York and other big city mayors, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, has grown rapidly in the past several years.

In addition to this new grasstops effort, this year several religious organizations have been working to reduce gun violence. Attorney General Eric Holder and Senator Diane Feinstein, the original sponsor of the Assault Weapons Ban, have indicated their interest in reinstating this measure. Gun-safety advocates, however, may want to take a page from the NRA and use this opportunity to push for meaningful, but strategic and incremental, advances. Each small victory will build momentum and a sense of inevitability for the next fight. This would reverse the tide and create the opportunity to restore common sense measures like the assault weapons ban.

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Jared Feldman is the senior policy associate for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs in Washington, D.C.

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