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Gun control backers are unlikely to reach some goals

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 15, 2013 - WASHINGTON – In a dramatic moment of his State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama motioned toward families or victims of gun violence sitting in the House gallery and demanded that Congress vote on bills that intend to deter it.

“Gabby Giffords deserves a vote,” Obama said, nodding toward the former congresswoman, who resigned because she could not fully function after she suffered head injuries during a mass shooting Tucson, Ariz.

“The families of Newtown deserve a vote,” Obama said. “The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence – they deserve a simple vote.”

Dozens of family members were there for the speech, and more than 100 of them jammed into a Senate Judiciary Committee room earlier that day to take part in a hearing, chaired by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., on gun legislation and the Second Amendment.

Despite all that attention to the issue – and Obama’s visit Friday to Chicago, where a spree of gun violence has become a major focus – it now appears as if major parts of the White House gun control agenda, as outlined last month, are in doubt in Congress.

There is a chance that the Senate may approve legislation to mandate universal background checks for gun buyers, make gun trafficking a federal crime and perhaps limiting the size of high-capacity ammunition magazines. But few lawmakers think an assault weapons ban is likely, and the U.S. House may block even modest gun control initiatives.

“I hope we can get as much of it done as possible,” said U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. “But I am not as optimistic about picking individual weapons to ban as I am about universal background checks – in terms of what we actually have a chance of passing and sending to the president’s desk.”

“I don’t know what’s possible to do in the Senate,” said U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who opposes an assault weapons ban and many other gun-control measures but is sponsoring a bill to improve mental health access. He also may back efforts to “link certain mental health records, background check records and other things” to help authorities better keep track of potential shooters.

“As for the president’s challenge that ‘they deserve a vote,’ let’s see where the votes are,” Blunt told reporters. “If there’s a good idea, it has a chance of passing. If it goes too far, it won’t pass. That’s of course the challenge of legislating. To come up with something that’s actually possible to get done.”

What’s possible to accomplish?

After the mass shooting at Newtown, Conn.’s Sandy Hook School – during which 20 first-grade students and six adults lost their lives on Dec. 14 – many activists lawmakers called it a “game-changer” in the debate over gun control.

A month later, Obama proposed some ambitious goals that had been developed by Vice President Joe Biden and others. And some of those proposals have been translated into legislative language and are starting to work their way through Congress.

“Americans all across the country are now saying: Enough. We’ve reached a tipping point,” said Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat. “We need to act. We need to better protect our kids and our loved ones from the epidemic of gun violence.”

At the Judiciary hearing that Durbin chaired this week, senators and witnesses discussed some of the most prominent legislative proposals on gun violence, including a bill introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. – and sponsored by at least 20 other senators – that would reinstate the ban on assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines. Arguing forcefully for her bill, she said 850 mayors have endorsed it.

McCaskill told reporters this week that she “supports the concept” of such restrictions, as well as mandating universal background checks. But she added that “the details are important” and – because she doesn’t serve on the committees that will be developing the legislation – she plans to withhold support until she knows those details.

“I think we have a chance of getting the high-capacity magazines done, depending on how that’s drafted and how large the magazine capacity is that we’re trying to ban,” McCaskill told reporters, in response to a question from the Beacon. She also said the universal background check “is widely supported by Missourians.”

However, McCaskill said “the banning of individual weapons is tricky because for every ban you make there’s a change in the manufacturing that gets it just outside the regulation. I do think that it is more controversial – the banning of individual weapons.”

While Blunt is focusing on mental health rather than gun control, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., appears to be staking out a middle ground on gun violence issues.

In the first bipartisan gun-safety measure introduced in this Congress, Kirk joined with U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., in sponsoring the Gun Trafficking Prevention Act, which aims to make it tougher for criminals to get illegal guns through third parties. It was the first bipartisan gun-safety measure of the new Congress. A trafficking bill with similar aims is being sponsored by Durbin and Judiciary Committee chairman U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

“Gun trafficking is allowing gangs and violence to flourish in Chicago,” said Kirk, pointing out that illegally trafficked guns were involved in many of the 500 killings in Chicago last year as a result of gang violence. “We must put a stop to this cycle.”

This week, Kirk met with several Illinois family members who had lost loved ones recently to gun violence. “One of my top priorities this year is to pass legislation that will dry up the supply of illegal weapons to dangerous drug gangs who are committing these senseless acts of violence,” Kirk said, adding that “we must break through the typical Washington process and actually get something done that will save lives.”

Blunt thinks that improving mental health services is a more logical way to address the senseless gun violence than limiting the access of everyday Americans to guns. In fact, he contends that Obama’s pursuit of gun control proposals has driven up the sales of weapons and ammunition by people who fear that possible new laws will prevent them from such purchases in the future.

“What might happen in the future I don’t know, but I do know that, for the last four years, there has been a concern that people’s Second Amendment rights could be in jeopardy,” Blunt told reporters this week. “Guns and ammunition are now selling at a rate that I think exceeds anything in past years.”

“I think people in Missouri are going to continue to value their ability to have hunting and self-defense weapons.”

Tough GOP opposition in the House

In the House, the almost diametrically opposed gun-control positions of U.S. Reps. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, and William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, exemplify the split between conservatives and liberals on the issue.

This week, Clay endorsed Obama’s State of the Union comments on the need for gun legislation. “I applaud and strongly support the president's efforts to enact common sense measures that a clear majority of Americans support to reduce gun violence,” he said.

While Clay said in a statement he supports Second Amendment gun ownership rights, he backs the White House proposals for “a renewal of the assault weapons ban, a ban on high-capacity magazine clips, universal background checks for all gun purchases and ending on-line sales of firearms and ammunition.”

Wagner, on the other hand, criticized the White House for “circumventing Congress with executive orders, conducting closed-door meetings, and recommending legislation that infringes upon our Second Amendment Rights.”

In Wagner’s opinion, more aggressive enforcement of current gun laws make more sense that adding new restrictions, which she contends affect law-abiding people more than they do criminals, who get their weapons through illegal sources.

“There are things in place now that have been funded that need to be a) implemented and b) enforced,” Wagner said in an interview last month. “You can’t sell or possess firearms if you are a felon or convicted of domestic assault or are mentally ill. These laws are in place and I think they need to be enforced.”

Wagner said, “We want to have a discussion about violence in our society, but it needs to be a comprehensive discussion that includes guns but also talks about mental health issues, school safety, and what our children are exposed to.”

Some House Democrats who represent rural areas are also wary of strict gun control laws, although many of them support stricter registration rules for buyers and sellers – and some back reasonable limits on the size of ammunition magazines.

U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, former Illinois adjutant general whose congressional district includes East St. Louis but also rural areas of southwest Illinois, said he wants to do something but first wants to get input from his constituents.

“We’re setting up a gun task force that’s going to take input from people throughout the district,” Enyart said in an interview. “I want to get a sense of where the district is” on gun issues.

“There are some people who’d ban all guns and some people who think everybody from age 6 on up should have a gun. There’s probably a middle ground somewhere.”

Enyart – a hunter and gun owner – is wary of restrictions on guns, but he believes some steps could be taken to lessen gun violence.

“I think clearly we need to enforce the laws that are on the books today,” he said. “We need to keep guns out of the hands of convicted felons and out of the hands of mentally ill people. We need a process that works to make sure we can do that.”