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Newtown to Navy Yard: Gun Laws Still a Tough Sell

Newtown to Navy Yard: Gun Laws Still a Tough Sell

By Caitlin Huey-Burns and Adam O'Neal - September 18, 2013

A handful of lawmakers are urging their colleagues to renew the debate about gun violence after Monday’s mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard. But even Congress’ top advocates of stricter laws know the prospects of any reprised legislation are as dim as ever.

Monday’s tragedy literally hit close to home for those on Capitol Hill, given the proximity of the massacre that claimed 13 lives (including that of the alleged gunman). Discussion in the Senate -- which was under a brief lockdown after the shooting -- inevitably turned to guns. But it doesn’t figure to last long.

Several lawmakers remarked that the news of a shooter storming into a supposedly secure facility and killing more than a dozen people is unfortunately too familiar. But they surmise that if the Newtown, Conn., attack that left 20 first-graders dead didn’t sway enough members of the Democratic-controlled Senate, what else could?

Sen. Joe Manchin was virtually speechless when asked that question before meeting his colleagues for lunch Tuesday. The West Virginia Democrat’s background-check bill, co-authored by fellow NRA “A-rated” Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, fell short by six votes last spring.

Manchin said he hopes his bill, or one like it, reaches the upper chamber floor again. But “unless there is desire for a change and people want to change” their votes, there won’t be much movement. The first-term senator and others said they would continue to talk to their colleagues, but noted they are still in the early stages of learning more about the shooter and the possible causes of attack.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he would like to bring back the failed legislation -- which would have expanded background checks to gun show and Internet sales, but wouldn’t require them for personal sales or loans -- but noted that the votes still aren’t there.

The formula for passing any type of legislation related to guns has eluded this Congress, despite political capital spent on the issue by President Obama shortly after his re-election, the push for legislation by some unlikely sources in Congress, supportive polling data on public attitudes, and the passionate lobbying of Newtown families on Capitol Hill and beyond.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has pushed for an assault weapons ban, acknowledged the challenge. “We need 60 votes,” she told reporters outside the Senate chamber. “And to go through it all again, it’s a very emotional discussion because it involves human life -- innocent life -- and to not be able to succeed is hard.”

After the Navy Yard shooting, the talk on Capitol Hill centered on legislative responses related to mental health and security clearances.

Monday’s alleged shooter reportedly had a history of mental illness and sought treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Aaron Alexis, a former Navy reservist, was previously arrested for gun-related incidents: once for shooting out the tires of someone’s vehicle with a Glock pistol in Seattle and another for shooting a gun inside his apartment in Fort Worth, Texas. He was not charged in either case. He was honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy Reserve in 2011. Officials determined Alexis bought the shotgun he was armed with in Monday’s killings in Lorton, Va., and reportedly had a permit to carry a concealed weapon.

Lawmakers are questioning how Alexis obtained a security clearance, given his past. “When you shoot a guy’s tires out because you’re mad at him, you’re a good candidate to not work in the federal government,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said. “The fact that it never got reported in the system is deeply troubling.” In March, the South Carolina Republican and other lawmakers offered a background check bill dealing with mentally ill potential buyers, but it did not advance. That is the bigger issue, said Graham, who noted, “I don’t think anything has changed on guns.”

The time lapse between Newtown and Navy Yard has revealed several challenges facing advocates of stricter gun laws, in addition to the failure of legislation earlier this year.

A recent blow to their efforts came in Colorado. Earlier in the year, as a response to the Newtown massacre, the state legislature approved a bill requiring universal background checks and banning ammunition magazines that hold more than 15 rounds. Emboldened gun rights supporters gathered enough signatures to recall two legislators who supported the measure, state Senate President Dan Morse and Sen. Angela Giron.

Although gun control advocates outspent recall proponents by a 6-1 margin, Morse and Giron were recalled from their heavily Democratic districts by two and 12 percentage points, respectively. Barack Obama earned nearly 60 percent of the vote in both districts last fall, but enthusiastic turnout from gun rights supporters enabled the recall victories.

Another challenge is time. "Guns have always been very ephemeral for people,” says Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, the director of social policy and politics at Third Way, a center-left think tank that has been tracking the legislation.

“Public attention gets paid to it [after shootings] but then it goes back down. Attention to Newtown lasted longer because of the sheer horrifying nature of the bloodshed. But it’s a fact in politics that people pay attention for a bit, then move on to other issues.”

Erickson Hatalsky pointed out that it took a dozen years to pass the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act, a 1994 law named for President Ronald Reagan's press secretary who was shot during a 1981 assassination attempt. “I’m not sure there is anything else that the president or others can do about it except for continuing to make the case that we should keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them.”

Cultivating support is made complicated by the full plate of other issues lawmakers are facing -- chief among them passing a budget resolution and lifting the debt ceiling by Sept. 30 and mid-October, respectively. A push for a vote on military action in Syria, which was later placed on hold, took up legislative time and political energy. The House will take up the second part of the Farm Bill this week. The Senate is examining energy legislation. Meanwhile, immigration reform remains stalled.

There may be an avenue for extra scrutiny for concealed-carry laws, Erickson Hatalsky said. Alexis reportedly had a permit to carry a weapon that was honored in Texas but not in the District of Columbia. The National Rifle Association has been pushing to expand permits, as the laws widely vary from state to state. An NRA-backed “concealed carry reciprocity” amendment to the background check bill failed by three votes, but if passed it would have required that other states’ concealed-weapons permit laws be honored everywhere.

Notably, though, action on gun issues has taken place only in the Democratic-controlled Senate. The GOP-led House is a different story. Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer said he doesn’t expect to have a vote on any proposals, pointing to the Senate’s failed efforts in April.

The House’s No. 2 Democrat told reporters: “If the past is prologue, our prologue is not very hopeful.”

Caitlin Huey-Burns and Adam O'Neal

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