— Six people shot to death, including a federal judge, a U.S. representative gravely wounded — then a flurry of rhetoric about the need to change gun laws.
But Congress seems unlikely to do that in the aftermath of the Tucson killings.
Even last year and in 2009, when Democrats had control of both houses, Congress showed more support for protecting and expanding the rights of gun owners than for restricting them.
Why? Look at the numbers.
Reacting to the Tucson shooting which left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D- Ariz., with a traumatic brain injury, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y. has proposed to ban magazines or clips with a capacity of more than 10 rounds of ammunition.
McCarthy’s bill has 57 co-sponsors. Almost all are from California, from big cities (Minneapolis, Chicago, Portland, Ore., Chicago, Denver, etc.) or from suburbs in the Northeast. No members from rural parts of America have yet signed on to her bill. Nor have any Republicans.
The rural/urban split
Exemplifying the rural/urban divide among Democrats is Minnesota, where two Democrats from the Twin Cities districts, Rep. Betty McCollum and Rep. Keith Ellison, are co-sponsoring McCarthy’s bill, while their rural counterparts, Democratic Rep. Tim Walz and Rep. Collin Peterson are not.
McCollum and Ellison both hold very safe seats. Not Walz, who won last November with less than 50 percent of the vote.
"Walz had a relatively close reelection in a largely rural district. Peterson represents one of the most conservative districts in the state, and the most rural such district,” said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota. "Both know they are at potential electoral risk with some of their votes with the Democratic leadership and thus do not want to cross the energetic pro-gun constituents in their districts."
With 64 fewer Democrats in the House than last year and with GOP leaders now deciding what bills get brought to the floor for a vote, it would be enormously difficult to pass a bill opposed by the National Rifle Association, the chief gun owners’ lobbying group.
The NRA argues that the magazines which McCarthy seeks to ban are "standard equipment for self-defense handguns and other firearms owned by tens of millions of Americans. Law-abiding private citizens choose them for many reasons, including the same reason police officers do: to improve their odds in defensive situations."
Last Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a long-time supporter of gun control measures, said, "Let's be honest here, there haven't been the votes in the Congress for gun control," although he noted the Senate did defeat a proposal to allow people with concealed carry gun permits in one state to enjoy the same right when they visited other states.
Support for gun owners in 2009-2010
Even in the last session of Congress when the Democrats controlled the House, there was strong support for legislation protecting or favoring gun owners.
Take, for instance, a measure to allow visitors to national parks and wildlife refuges to carry guns. It was attached to a bill to tighten regulation of credit card issuers in 2009. President Barack Obama signed the measure into law.
On the decisive vote in the House, the tally was 279-147. In all, 105 Democrats, including Giffords, Peterson and Walz, voted for it. Only two Republican voted against the measure: Mike Castle of Delaware, who was defeated in his bid for the GOP Senate nomination last year by (the ultimately unelected) Christine O'Donnell, and Mark Kirk, now the Republican senator from Illinois.
Both Peterson and Walz got support in last year’s election from the NRA.
In addition, NRA-supported candidates won close Senate races last year in Nevada, Wisconsin, Missouri, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and another race in Ohio that wasn’t so close.
To some extent, the NRA was bipartisan: it backed two Senate Democrats, Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and House Democrats such as Walz, Peterson, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania.
In all, the NRA contributed to 54 Democratic House candidates in 2010. Half of them won, including Donnelly, Altmire, and Walz, all of whom survived close races.
In its summary of the 2010 election, the NRA Political Victory Fund said, “Of the 282 candidates endorsed by the NRA-PVF for the U.S. House, 227 were victorious, for an 85 winning percentage.”
'Pro-gun election upgrades'
Referring to its rating system that scores members of Congress, the NRA added, “In the 111th Congress, there were 226 A-rated and 151 F-rated Representatives. The 112th Congress will contain 262 A-rated (+32) and 133 F-rated (-18) Members. There were pro-gun election upgrades in 27 House districts.”
Why were the Democrats able to pass landmark gun control legislation — including a ban on high-capacity ammo clips — in 1994? And what has changed since?
"The pro-gun forces have superior resources and votes at election time," Schier said. "Democrats can only keep their congressional majorities by winning elections in pro-gun districts and states. The overall decline in crime rates over the past 20 years has also assisted the pro-gun forces."
There's another factor: the 1994 gun control measure wasn’t standalone legislation, but was wrapped inside a massive anti-crime bill which passed only after months of tortuous deal-making. It included other provisions such as an expansion of the federal death penalty — that picked up some support from centrists and conservatives — and items such as a hate crime statute to deter crimes against women — that won support from liberals.
Again the numbers tell the tale: there were more pro-gun-control Democrats in the House in 1994 than there were last year, or than there are this year: 188 in 1994, roughly 145 last year, and fewer than that today.
In 1994, in the crucial final action in the House, it was centrist Republicans — with Mike Castle in the lead — who made the deal with Democratic leaders that allowed the bill to pass.
In the final tally, 46 Republicans voted for the anti-crime bill, including John Kasich, now governor of Ohio, Jon Kyl, now senator from Arizona, and Olympia Snowe, now senator from Maine, as well as five Republicans who are still serving in the House. Voting "no" were 131 Republicans and 64 Democrats.
In the decisive vote in the Senate, again it was a small group of Republicans who made the difference in 1994: John Chafee of Rhode Island, Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, John Danforth of Missouri, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Jim Jeffords of Vermont, and William Roth of Delaware voted with the Democrats to push the bill over its final procedural hurdle — it did so by a two-vote margin.
Such Republicans are now either defeated (Castle), long since retired from politics (Danforth), or dead (Chafee).
There are also new legal hurdles for gun control advocates to negotiate. Any bill that Congress might pass would need to stay within the bounds set by the Supreme Court’s 2008 Heller decision which declared that the Second Amendment “confers an individual right to keep and bear arms.” However the court was careful to note that its ruling didn’t cast doubt on "longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill” or laws imposing conditions on arms sales.