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.
Jim Brady and his wife, Sarah, began their involvement in the gun control movement after the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. Brady, then Reagan's press secretary, was shot and permanently disabled in the attack. But it wasn't until 12 years later that a bill named in his honor, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, became law. The Brady Bill requires federal background checks for most firearm purchases.
The National Rifle Association initially kept a low profile on the issue, but on Friday blasted the proposed magazine ban. "These magazines are standard equipment for self-defense handguns and other firearms owned by tens of millions of Americans," an NRA press release stated. "Law-abiding private citizens choose them for many reasons, including the same reason police officers do: to improve their odds in defensive situations." Some lawmakers have said that this incident requires gun control laws to be loosened. Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican, has called for a law allowing members of Congress to carry a concealed weapon in the District of Columbia. "There is a rash of legislation further infringing on Second Amendment rights that has been unwisely proffered in the wake of events in Tucson," Gohmert said. "Though I do not anticipate carrying a gun in Washington, D.C., myself, members of Congress should have the right to protect themselves from sudden acts of violence like the heartless shootings in Tucson." Giffords herself has been a Second Amendment advocate. She received a lifetime "C" rating from the NRA during the past election but has supported several measures to strengthen the right to carry guns, including a bill voiding D.C.'s handgun ban.
Aside from gun control, the shooting also provoked a discussion about rancor and vitriol in politics. Predictably, the discussion became heated, with many liberals blaming partisan rhetoric for creating a climate of violence and with many conservatives blasting Democrats for politicizing the tragedy. Rep. Bob Brady, a Pennsylvania Democrat, wants to beef up penalties for those who make threats to members of Congress. His proposal would expand a federal law forbidding threats to the president or vice president to include members of Congress.
Despite reviews of security procedures, lawmakers have vowed not to put up barriers between themselves and their constituents. "I don't want to see representatives walking around with security," Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy said at a press conference Tuesday. "The one place where we can really be ourselves is at home, and we wouldn't want that to go away."