Stewart M. Powell / Houston Chronicle – 2011-04-12 00:01:04
Politics, Focus on Economy Cited for Lack of Action after Tucson and ICE Slayings
(April 11, 2011) — Emblazoned on the red billboard truck that motored through downtown Houston last week was this number: 2,995 — a tally of the people believed slain with guns since the Tucson, Ariz., shooting that killed six people and wounded 13, including Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
The truck started off in New York’s Times Square and will traverse the US, keeping a running tab on gun deaths as part of an effort by 550 Mayors Against Illegal Guns to galvanize support for stricter gun laws.
Yet despite the highly visible campaign, there is no groundswell for additional gun regulations since the Jan. 8 Tucson shooting or the slaying of a Texas ICE agent in Mexico with a weapon purchased in Dallas.
The political debate has shifted from ambitious attempts to ban specific kinds of weapons such as Saturday night specials or assault-style weapons to more modest efforts to limit the lethality of legal weapons and tighten screening to prevent purchases by convicted criminals or individuals with evidence of mental illness or instability. Even those proposals face little hope of passage in the politically split Congress.
A loose consensus has emerged that recognizes “these killings are the shooter’s responsibility, not the gun’s responsibility,” says US Sen. John Cornyn, R-San Antonio.
“Drunk drivers kill 25,000 people a year and we don’t ban cars — we go after the driver,” adds Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, a former Harris County criminal court judge for two decades.
A measure to restrict ammunition magazines to 10 rounds rather than the 33-round magazine used in Tucson has 105 Democratic co-sponsors but languishes in a subcommittee in the Republican-controlled House. In the closely divided Democratic-led Senate, no action has been taken on a proposal by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., to stiffen penalties for states that fail to provide updated mental health reports to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System used to screen prospective gun buyers.
Not a Legislative Priority
Schumer’s proposal also would close the so-called “gun show loophole” that permits some firearms sales without background checks.
“Political divisions over guns and the power of the National Rife Association have created an environment where gun control has become essentially untouchable,” says John M. Bruce, a University of Mississippi scholar who wrote The Changing Politics of Gun Control. “Democrats have decided they can’t win on this issue so they’re not going to bring it up. They’re tweaking around the margins but our society has collectively decided that we’re willing to accept tens of thousands of firearms fatalities each year.”
Behind gun control advocates’ absence of momentum is simple political calculus: Jobs and the economy trump any talk of gun control on Capitol Hill: “We don’t have the luxury of spending political capital on a lot of other issues,” says Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin. “Our focus is the economy — as it should be.”
Supreme Court Rulings
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, who backs “responsible gun regulations consistent with the Second Amendment,” emphasizes that “we have a number of crises we are facing but creating jobs is imperative.” Even among centrist politicians in Congress, there is no support for new restrictions.
The turning point can be traced to a variety of factors. The US Supreme Court significantly bolstered gun rights by overturning the District of Columbia’s de facto ban on handguns in 2008 and by deeming gun ownership an individual constitutional right in 2010.
“Partisan rivalry has become so ferocious that Democrats are unwilling to raise gun control because they fear Republican rivals will use it against them at the next election,” says Glenn H. Utter, a scholar at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, who wrote the Encyclopedia of Gun Control and Gun Rights. “Now the NRA is not just looking to block additional gun control, it’s looking to roll it back.”
The number of “right-to-carry” states has increased from 29 in 1987 to 40 states â€“ including 37 states such as Texas that require authorities to automatically issue permits to applicants who meet uniform standards established by the state legislature.
Lawmakers in Texas and at least eight other states so far this year have weighed expanding gun rights to permit licensed college students to carry concealed weapons on campus. Twenty-four states still prohibit concealed weapons on college campuses and 15 “right to carry” states leave the decision to individual campuses.
The National Rifle Association continues to exercise clout across the political landscape. Founded in 1871 to improve marksmanship, the NRA’s political juggernaut today is built upon nearly 4 million members who stand ready to respond to the organization’s mantra, “vote freedom first.”
NRA donations in Texas
The organization poured $26.3 million into the 2010 midterm congressional campaign in donations to candidates, independent expenditures on behalf of selected candidates and lobbying expenses to carry the organization’s message to Capitol Hill and the administration.
The NRA pumped $109,200 into the campaigns of 23 pro-gun House incumbents from Texas, including Reps. Gene Green, D-Houston and Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, who won, and Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, and Chet Edwards, D-Waco, who lost. It also provided support to Texas’ two senators in their last two elections, providing Sen. John Cornyn $7,950 to his election in 2008, and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Dallas, $2,000 for her re-election bid in 2006.
President Barack Obama has invited representatives from rival interest groups to discussions on gun safety measures, contending “we can get beyond wedge issues and stale political debates to find a sensible, intelligent way to make the United States of America a safer, stronger place.” But the NRA leadership has rejected the discussions.
‘Misses the Point’
“To focus national attention on guns — and not criminals or mental health issues — misses the point entirely,” NRA leaders Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox wrote the president. “Gun control doesn’t work because it requires the cooperation of criminals,” says NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. “It’s bad politics to be on the wrong side of the issue. People realize that with prisoner furloughs and law enforcement layoffs, if something bad happens, they’re basically going to be fending for themselves,” he said.
Still, gun control advocates push for change.
“Fight fiercely,” advises James Brady, 70, who survived the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981 to help win landmark legislation in 1993 requiring background checks for gun purchasers. “I would not be sitting in this damn wheelchair if we had common sense legislation at that time.”
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