WASHINGTON – Most lawmakers are greeting calls for tougher gun restrictions after the Arizona shootings with silence, reflecting the tilt in recent years toward expanding access to firearms rather than curtailing it.
The White House, too, is sidestepping questions on an issue that is among the most toxic in U.S. politics.
So far, proposed legislation has focused on prohibiting magazine clips that allow a shooter to fire off numerous rounds of ammunition without reloading. The shooter in Tucson, using a Glock semiautomatic pistol with a 33-round magazine, shot 19 people, six fatally. One of the wounded was a member of Congress, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., now in critical condition.
Similar magazine-limiting legislation was introduced after the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings but was never considered by the House or Senate.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., is drafting a bill supported by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg that would prohibit people from carrying guns within 1,000 feet of the president, members of Congress or federal judges.
Magazine clips were limited to 10 rounds under the 1994 assault weapons ban. Congress let that law expire in 2004 after Republicans were seen to have capitalized on the National Rifle Association’s opposition to it in the 2000 presidential race and other elections.
The Tucson shootings have brought fresh calls to make clips with more than 10 rounds illegal from the same core group of Democratic lawmakers who have led past efforts for stricter gun controls: Sens. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy of New York.
Leaders in both parties on both sides of the Capitol, as well as the White House, have dodged questions on whether the capacity of gun magazines should be reduced.
“This is a time for the House and all Americans to come together to mourn our losses and pray for those who are recovering, not a time for politics,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner.
Democratic leaders were also reticent to comment.
“At the moment, the leader’s thoughts and prayers are with Congresswoman Giffords and those who were killed and injured,” said Drew Hammill, spokesman for Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.
President Barack Obama, a strong gun-control advocate earlier in his political career, noted in his speech at a Tucson memorial service on Wednesday that the shooting had sparked a national conversation on issues including “the merits of gun safety laws” – but he said nothing of his own views on the matter.
When he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004, Obama said it was a “scandal” that President George W. Bush was allowing the assault weapons ban to expire without pushing for its renewal. And as a presidential candidate, he promised to push to reinstate the ban. After the election he said it would be difficult to do.
Asked Thursday if Obama would press to reinstate the assault weapons ban, presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs demurred, saying the White House was focused on the healing process but would evaluate “ideas and proposals” brought forward by the Tucson case.
“The president, again, since I have been with him in 2004, has supported the assault weapons ban. And we continue to do so,” Gibbs said. “And I think we all strive, regardless of party, to ensure that we’re doing everything we can to reduce violence. We’ll have an opportunity to evaluate some of the other proposals.”
The silence on gun legislation may well reflect the state of firearms politics as well as the respect and courtesy lawmakers want to convey for the Arizona victims. Gun control advocates have been on the losing end of most legislative debates in recent years. In 2009, for example, Congress passed legislation allowing guns in national parks, and Obama signed it.
Polling also points to how the political landscape has changed. In 1990, Gallup first asked about the status of laws covering the sale of firearms. Back then, 79 percent said such laws should be made stricter. By 2000, that figure had dropped to 62 percent. And in the most recent polling, in October, that number dropped to 44 percent.
Gun control advocates say the immediacy of the Tucson shootings is key to pushing legislation now, before public outrage fades.
“The NRA is doing what it always does: they want people to not talk about the issue, they want to delay until the collective state of excitement over the issue has gone down,” said Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
National Rifle Association officials declined repeated requests to discuss their efforts in the aftermath of the Tucson shootings. Spokesman Andrew Arulanandam sent an e-mail saying, “At this time anything other than prayers for the victims and their families would be inappropriate.”
Chad Ramsey of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said his group would reach out to nearly 100 new lawmakers to gauge their interest in restricting magazine capacity.
“When they see someone from their own fraternity get shot, they may come at this issue with a fresh set of eyes,” Ramsey said. “There are people who may have said to the NRA, ‘Yeah, I’ll support whatever you want’ who now think “I’ve got to support this. We’re talking about barring 33-round magazines. Who needs those?’ “
Both sides said they’ve sent lobbyists to the Capitol this week in an attempt to gauge support. Lawmakers and congressional aides, though, said lobbying activity has been minimal.
“I think lobbying groups may feel this is personal to all of us; they may feel it could end up backfiring if they come in,” said New York’s Rep. King.