WASHINGTON – The largest mass shooting in U.S. history forced reluctant Democratic leaders in Congress Tuesday to confront an issue that divides their party and holds considerable political peril: Gun control.
Advocates of stricter gun laws, such as Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., met with Democratic leaders, determined to resurrect an issue that has been dormant since the shootings at Columbine High School outside Denver in 1999. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., elicited a pledge from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to hold a hearing on the shootings.
“We need to stand up and do something,” said McCarthy, whose husband was killed by a gunman’s rampage on the Long Island Railroad.
But Democrats on both sides of the issue were skeptical that the 33 deaths at Virginia Tech would change a political equation that has turned in favor of gun rights advocates. Even after Columbine no major gun control laws passed Congress.
Since then, restrictions on guns have eased, with the 2004 expiration of President Bill Clinton’s landmark assault weapons ban, passage in 2005 of legislation shielding gun makers from lawsuits, and a 2003 measure preventing local enforcement agencies from consulting police in other states on firearms traces.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., boasts of a favorable rating from the National Rifle Association, which lobbies against gun control, and House Democratic leaders are in no rush to jeopardize conservative freshmen elected from Republican-leaning districts in Indiana, North Carolina and Kansas.
“Unless we get some leadership from the White House, we’re not going to take this kind of political damage bringing up something that would never become law,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, a gun control advocate.
Such hesitation underscored how dramatically the issue of gun control has changed since the shootings at Columbine eight years ago. They drew immediate congressional reaction: Bills were introduced to bolster background checks, force the inclusion of trigger locks with gun sales and close legal loopholes that allowed firearms to be bought from gun shows without full background checks.
But the NRA helped scuttle those measures, and some nonpartisan political analysts gave the gun lobby’s campaign credit for the defeat of Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore in 2000.
In 2004, President Bush signaled that he would sign legislation extending a ban on semiautomatic assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines that had passed as part of Clinton’s 1994 crime bill. GOP leaders allowed the law to expire without a vote.
The lapsed gun law was back in focus Tuesday amid evidence that Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui used high-capacity ammunition clips that had been banned, allowing him to fire more rounds without reloading. If Democratic leaders cannot muster the votes to reinstate the full assault weapons ban, some suggested that at least the clip-capacity portion could be passed.
“It’s hard to explain why a person needs a clip with more than 10 bullets in it,” Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said.