The bill, a response to the December 14 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown which took the lives of 20 young children and six teachers, has passed in the state of Connecticut. Gun advocates protested heavily against the strict legislation, but Connecticut’s Democratic Governor Dannel P. Malloy went ahead and signed the law at a ceremony on Thursday (04.04.2013), several hours after it was approved by the General Assembly.
The measures extend the state’s assault weapons ban to an additional 100 firearms, ban the sale of high-capacity magazines and would impose immediate universal background checks on all firearms sales.
In addition, anyone who wants to purchase a rifle, shotgun or ammunition would have to obtain a certificate by being fingerprinted and taking a firearms course among other requirements.
“This is a message that should resound in 49 other states and in Washington, D.C.,” said Connecticut Senate President Donald E. Williams. “And the message is: We can get it done here and they should get it done in their respective states and nationally in Congress.”
Lawmakers approved the bill by a vote of 105-44 in the state House of Representatives and 26-10 in the Senate.
But whether or not Connecticut’s message will make an impression on Washington remains to be seen. Unlike in Hartford, where both legislative chambers are controlled by Democrats, the US House of Representatives is controlled by Republicans.
And in the Democrat-majority US Senate, a group of five Republican senators have signed a letter addressed to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid vowing to filibuster “any legislation that would infringe on the American people’s constitutional right to bear arms, or on their ability to exercise this right without being subjected to government surveillance.”
The filibuster threat came after Reid had already decided to drop the assault weapons ban from any future bill. The Nevada Democrat said “using the most optimistic numbers” the ban “has less than 40 votes.” A measure needs 60 votes to end debate and bring it to a final vote.
“I think, as a practical matter, if this gun control package is going to go through the House, it’s going to have a very commanding majority in the Senate anyway, so the filibuster is kind of a moot point,” Kristin Goss, author of “Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control,” told DW.
The assault weapons ban, proposed by Senator Diane Feinstein, also included a ban on magazines containing more than 10 rounds. Although those measures will not be included in a bill, they can still be voted on separately as amendments.
Focus on background checks
According to Goss, the marginalization of the assault weapons ban in the Senate was expected and does not signal a collapse of broader gun control legislation.
“I think you can argue that if it had been part of a core bill, that would have been very bad for the whole bill, because it would’ve been a deal breaker for a number of senators, who might be inclined to vote for background checks,” said Goss, a professor of political science at Duke University.
But so far, bi-partisan negotiations to expand background checks on gun purchases have not produced a deal. While federally licensed gun dealers are currently required to conduct the checks, transactions between private individuals are not covered.
The negotiations to expand background checks, led by Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer and Republican Senator Tom Coburn, have faltered over Coburn’s opposition to records being kept on transactions between private individuals.
NRA lobbying campaign
Meanwhile, the NRA is kicking its lobbying campaign into high gear, seeking to quash virtually any legislative initiative to impose tougher firearms restrictions.
“The NRA is going to be pushing a series of amendments – and they already are – to water down the existing legislation so that even if it’s enacted, it’s not really going to have any effect,” Robert J. Spitzer, author of “The Politics of Gun Control,” told DW.
According to the Washington Post, the NRA has proposed language that would effectively neutralize a provision to make straw purchasing a federal crime. Straw purchasing occurs when an individual buys a gun and passes it on to someone who cannot legally purchase a firearm.
The NRA language would require law enforcement to prove that the straw purchaser knew the end recipient was barred from possessing a gun or intended to commit a crime.
“That’s a virtually impossible legal standard to meet,” said Spitzer, a professor of political science at the State University of New York College at Cortland. “The bill says you can pursue prosecutions, but if there’s a provision in there that sets the legal bar for prosecution so high, it’s going to have virtually no effect.”
Legislative push in the states
With gun control measures in limbo in Congress, many states are taking the initiative and passing their own legislation. While Colorado and New York have passed new gun restrictions, many states are passing pro-gun laws.
According to a recent report by the Hartford Courant, 17 states and Washington D.C. are considering gun control legislation, while 26 states are seeking to liberalize gun laws.
The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, meanwhile, has reported that more than 600 bills have been introduced to strengthen gun control, while about 540 bills are being considered to expand gun rights.
“There were a lot of pro-gun bills that had been in preparation before Sandy Hook, and those are moving,” Goss said. “Although I must say, the pro-gun bills by and large are fairly narrow and fairly technical. They’re not major pieces of legislation, whereas the pro-control stuff – that will soon happen in Connecticut probably and has happened in New York and Colorado – are major reform packages.”
Although recent polling by the Washington Post and ABC has indicated that nine in 10 Americans support universal background checks on gun purchases, Spitzer believes the clock is running out on gun control legislation.
“We are more than three months since the Newtown shooting, and the tide has begun to turn,” Spitzer said. “I think the window is starting to close on these measures.”
But he also acknowledged that a reform package still has a chance, pointing to the successful passage of the assault weapons ban in 1994, which expired under President George W. Bush.
“It was declared legislatively dead a couple of times, and normally when that happens it really is the end, but they managed to bring it back and ultimately get approval,” Spitzer said. “That could happen here too, but it’s getting tougher and tougher with each day that goes by.”
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