In Congress, the Uphill Battle for Gun Control

Why it's been years since significant federal legislation

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The scenario is all too familiar: A disturbed gunman opens fire in a school, an office, or a shopping center and, before horrified spectators, slaughters innocent men, women, and even children. After the massacres at Columbine High School, Virginia Tech University, and Omaha's Westroads Mall, the question is always the same: How could this tragedy have been prevented? Inevitably, there are calls for tougher gun control, and routinely they are followed by arguments about Second Amendment rights, along with protestations that "guns don't kill people; people do." In the end, the reactions to these tragedies serve only to remind how deeply divided Americans are when it comes to guns.

Four out of every 10 Americans own a gun. And nearly 3 out of 4 believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual the right to have a firearm. Recent Gallup polls show that only 38 percent of Americans think the most important way to combat gun violence is through stricter gun laws; 58 percent believe more should be done to enforce current laws instead. And more than two thirds oppose an outright ban on handguns.

Lost momentum. Perhaps that's why, despite the steady toll of gunshot violence, it's been nearly 15 years since there has been a significant push for gun legislation on the federal level. Back in 1993, a Democratic-controlled Congress passed the Brady bill, which imposed background checks on gun buyers, and the following year, Congress banned private ownership of assault weapons. But the momentum didn't last. Months later, Republicans took over Congress, and in 1996, the House voted to repeal the assault weapons ban. Although the Senate failed to follow suit at the time, in 2004 Congress let the ban expire.

The Democrats learned the perils of reviving the gun control issue during the 2000 presidential campaign when candidate Al Gore pledged to limit handgun sales, crack down on gun shows, and support state registration of firearms. It was a liberal position that some think cost him the vote in a few southern, pro-gun states, including his home state of Tennessee. For many Democrats, the lesson was clear: Gun control was a losing—and consuming—issue. "You can talk about guns, or you can talk about everything else," says Dane Strother, a Democratic media consultant. "If you start talking about guns, everyone bridles, be it pro-gun or antigun. You'll never make it to healthcare. You'll never make it to the economy."

That attitude has carried the day as Democrats have tried to pick up more seats in pro-gun states like Missouri and in the Southwest. Many of the Democratic victories in 2006 came from conservative candidates like Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, a gun-owning former marine whose senior aide was arrested last year for accidentally carrying Webb's gun into a Senate office building.

In the 2008 presidential campaign, neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama has talked much about gun control. Both Democratic candidates have endorsed the idea of tracking down illegal guns, but both have dropped their onetime support for licensing gun owners and registering new guns. At their Nevada debate in January, Clinton said she would reinstate the assault weapons ban. And Obama vowed to increase access to data that help trace the origin of guns used in crimes. But he acknowledged the gun control divide when he said: "We essentially have two realities when it comes to guns in this country.... We can reconcile those two realities by making sure the Second Amendment is respected and that people are able to lawfully own guns, but that we also start cracking down on the kinds of abuses of firearms that we see on the streets." Republican candidate John McCain has long endorsed an individual right to have guns.

Under Republican leadership, Congress did little to toughen gun control laws, and what Congress has done since then has largely been to relax laws. In 2003, for instance, it passed an amendment to block the government from publicly releasing most data that trace guns used in crimes. And in 2005, Congress gave gun manufacturers immunity to lawsuits if their firearms were used in crimes. The only significant federal gun control legislation, which increased funding for mental health background checks, was passed in December, under Democratic leadership and in the emotional wake of the Virginia Tech massacre. Other than that, says Andy Goddard, whose son was injured in the shooting, "people don't know how poorly protected they are."