House Democrats urging gun-safety hearings have swerved sharply from their actions last Congress, when they staged none despite their control of the chamber and pressure from some of their members.
Judiciary Committee Democrats argued last month that it’s “imperative” for the panel’s Republican leaders to examine the nation’s gun-safety laws in the wake of the Arizona shooting rampage that left a 9-year-old dead and a congresswoman seriously injured.
Yet in the two years prior, when Democrats controlled the panel’s schedule, gun reform never got an official hearing, despite the 34 Americans killed each day, on average, by firearms nationwide.The inaction hasn’t been overlooked by gun-reform advocates, who say it shouldn’t require a multi-death rampage or an assassination attempt on a national figure to spur Capitol Hill into a public-safety debate.
“Thirty-four people killed yesterday; 34 people killed today; 34 people killed tomorrow,” New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg told MSNBC last week. “Every day, bigger than Virginia Tech — and nobody cares.”
The inaction hasn’t been for an absence of pressure. Last year, Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), a member of the Judiciary panel, requested that Democratic leaders hold a hearing on the so-called gun-show loophole, a provision of federal law allowing unlicensed gun vendors to sell firearms without performing background checks on prospective buyers — a step required of licensed gun dealers.
He didn’t get it.
Instead, the committee — then chaired by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), a vocal supporter of tougher gun laws — granted Quigley a less prominent “forum” on the issue in his Chicago district. Reps. Robert “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) joined Quigley and Conyers in attending the event.
Democratic leaders “weren’t particularly helpful” on the gun-reform issue last Congress, Quigley said in a phone interview last month. The Illinois Democrat said there is a host of gun-related issues of which Congress is unaware “because there’s not even hearings or discussion about it, where we can talk about the parameters of what’s reasonable.”
“The gun lobby has stymied debate, and it has kept members from even discussing the issue,” Quigley said. Reform, he added dryly, “is harder to do if you’re not even discussing it.”
The reason has been no mystery. With the House Blue Dog Coalition boasting more than 50 members in the 111th Congress, Democratic gun reformers — including President Obama — had little chance of passing legislation even through the Democratic-controlled lower chamber. An early signal came in February of 2009, when Attorney General Eric Holder promoted a return of the assault-weapons ban, which had expired five years earlier. Sixty-five House Democrats wrote to the White House condemning the proposal.
“Law-abiding Americans use these guns for all the same reasons they use any other kind of gun – competitive shooting, hunting and defending their homes and families,” the Democrats wrote.
The message was clear: Any proposed restrictions on the Second Amendment were both practically futile and politically perilous. The White House abandoned the push altogether.
The Arizona shooting has altered both the political landscape and the Democrats’ appetite for an examination of the nation’s gun laws. In a Jan. 27 letter, the 16 Democrats on the Judiciary Committee urged Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) to stage gun-safety hearings in response to the Tucson rampage, which has left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) recovering from a gunshot wound to the head.
“We fully recognize and appreciate the sensitivity of the subjects raised by the recent tragedy in Tucson in which our colleague, Gabrielle Giffords, was shot and 18 others were wounded or killed,” the Democrats wrote. “However, we also believe it is not only possible, but imperative that Congress review the relevant issues in a civil and objective [manner].”
Smith last week rejected the Democrats’ request, arguing that such a high-profile public event could undermine the prosecution of the alleged Arizona shooter, Jared Lee Loughner.
“[T]o undertake such a review in the context of the tragic shooting in Arizona, as the Minority suggests, could have the unintended effect of prejudicing the ongoing criminal proceedings against Loughner in which his mental status is likely to be a key issue,” Smith said in an e-mail.
Instead, Smith’s office has arranged for the FBI to brief Judiciary staffers from both parties on the effectiveness of the federal database designed to screen gun purchases for prohibited buyers. That meeting is scheduled for Friday.
The offices of both Conyers and Smith declined to comment for this story.
Stirring the gun-reform debate, Bloomberg on Monday released the results of an investigation revealing that unlicensed dealers at a Jan. 23 gun show in Phoenix sold firearms illegally. Undercover investigators hired by New York City were able to purchase firearms from two dealers at the event, even after the buyers revealed they “probably couldn’t pass” a background check.
Unlicensed gun vendors are prohibited from selling firearms if they “know” or have “reason to believe” the buyer is banned from possessing a gun.
Gun-control advocates argue that keeping guns from felons, the mentally ill and other prohibited buyers should be in everyone’s interest — even the gun lobby’s.
“This is hardly something the [National Rifle Association] should be against,” Bloomberg told MSNBC Tuesday. “How can they argue that criminals should continue to buy guns? That’s just making the world more dangerous.”
The NRA is opposed to legislation requiring unlicensed vendors to perform background checks on potential buyers.
Asked Monday if Obama intends to address gun reform following the New York City investigation, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs dodged the question.
“We believe that there are reasons that federal laws are on the books,” Gibbs said, “and the need … to strongly adhere to and follow existing law is important not just in the purchase of weapons, but throughout our civil life.”
Gibbs walked off the podium as the reporter was asking a follow-up.