Giffords Shooting in Arizona Spurs Gun Law Debate

Shooting prompts new proposals, but action seems unlikely.

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The tragic shooting in Arizona, which left six people dead and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords seriously wounded, immediately swept aside business as usual for Congress, possibly altering its agenda for the rest of the year. As legislators mourned those who were lost, they also mulled how to move forward in a very new political climate. [See photos from the Arizona shooting.]

Although the House had been scheduled to debate a healthcare repeal last week, that vote and all other major votes were postponed. Instead, lawmakers took time to speak out about the tragedy, attend security briefings with the Capitol Police, and pass a measure condemning the act and honoring those who had fallen. Congress will return to its agenda this week, but it may decide to move forward with a moderated tone.It isn't clear what consequences, if any, the event will have for Congress. But, as in past shooting incidents, the tragedy in Tucson has sparked a debate on America's gun control laws, both at the state and national levels, although it doesn't appear that the stage is set for any sort of large change.

According to police, accused shooter Jared Loughner was able to fire more than 30 rounds before stopping to reload, when bystanders tackled him. The incident has prompted some lawmakers to call for banning high-capacity gun magazines. The 1994 assault weapons ban outlawed such clips, but Congress allowed the law to expire in 2004. "Running out of bullets is kind of a critical point where the shooting stops," says Shams Tarek, a spokesman for Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat and gun control advocate whose own entry into politics was prompted by the shooting death of her husband. McCarthy is calling for a return to the ban. "If there are less rounds in a clip, usually you can expect that there will be a lot less casualties," Tarek said.

It isn't just Democrats who are supporting gun control measures. Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, has also called for restrictions on guns near public officials. King's proposal would forbid anyone from carrying a gun within 1,000 feet of an elected official. His announcement was made through Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition cofounded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican-turned-independent who also has advocated for tougher gun control measures. And Richard Lugar, a veteran Republican senator from Indiana, has called for restoring all of the 1994 assault weapons ban. [See which lawmakers get the most from gun rights groups.]

The political climate is hardly hospitable to further restrictions on guns, despite the shooting. Gun control has long been one of the most controversial political topics—one Democrats have largely avoided since the gun control measures of the early 1990s. With Congress divided for the next two years, it will be difficult to pass any controversial legislation. President Obama has shown little willingness to engage on the issue while dealing with other priorities, such as the economy and the federal deficit. And according to a poll by Rasmussen, only 29 percent of Americans believe that strong gun laws would prevent incidents like the Tucson shooting, and a new poll by Zogby showed that only 35 percent of voters felt the shooting should lead to tougher gun laws. [See which lawmakers get the most from gun control groups.]

Still, the gun control lobby is preparing to push for stricter laws. "We think that this horrific tragedy demands that Congress address the weaknesses in our gun laws. We think it ought to occasion a full-scale examination of those weaknesses," says Dennis Henigan, a vice president with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "This is a shooting that strikes Congress very close to home."

Historically, gun control measures have often followed high-profile gun-related crimes, although sometimes it takes years or decades before the law is enacted. One of the first federal gun control laws, the 1934 National Firearms Act, which levied heavy taxes on machine guns, was passed shortly after the repeal of Prohibition. It was partly a response to the organized crime wave during that period. The 1968 Gun Control Act, which cracked down on the interstate gun trade and forbade most convicted felons from owning a gun, was installed in part as a response to the assassinations of President John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Sen. Robert Kennedy.