President Obama’s entire first-term record on gun control consisted of signing a bill that made it easier to carry firearms in national parks, and yet the NRA spent the last four years feverishly warning its members about the supposedly radical course he’d chart if he managed to win reelection.
Today, that fear will be realized when Obama unveils a comprehensive set of gun control proposals drawn up over the last month by Vice President Joe Biden. The president’s package is expected to include a renewed ban on assault weapons (an earlier version expired in 2004), limits on high-capacity magazines, universal background checks and an end to the gun show loophole, and new initiatives involving mental health and more police officers in schools. He’s also identified 19 executive orders that, among other things, will better coordinate the federal background check system and step up efforts to prosecute would-be gun purchasers who provide false information for their background checks.
Taken together, as the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker writes, Obama’s recommendations will amount to “the most comprehensive regulation of the firearms industry since 1968.”
The ’68 example is instructive, however, in terms of recognizing the potential limits on what Obama is now trying to do. That push, led by President Lyndon Johnson, gathered steam in the aftermath of the killings of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, but key elements were steadily watered down and stripped out as the bill made its way through Congress. The final product banned the sale of firearms to minors and by mail and required gun sellers to keep record of whom they were selling to – a far cry from what LBJ had initially set out to achieve.
Still, it marked the first legislative action on guns since the Federal Firearms Act of 1938, proving if nothing else that it was still possible to enact gun reforms through Congress. It took 25 years after LBJ’s ’68 law for further gun restrictions – the Brady Bill, with its mandatory five-day waiting period – to be added to the books, and an assault weapons ban was added a year later. Since then, there’s been nothing.
The question now is how much of Obama’s proposal can actually make it through the House and Senate and to his desk. The most obvious threat to his plans is on the House side, where there is virtually no appetite among majority Republicans for further gun restrictions. Even allowing a vote on Obama’s plans could stoke conservative anger toward Speaker John Boehner, and individual members who go on record backing any of the president’s reforms could expose themselves to primary challenges from the right. Conventional wisdom holds that the assault weapons ban has essentially zero chance of making it through the House.
That said, there are some glimmers of hope for Obama. In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, there is enormous pressure on all leaders, Democrat and Republican, to do something, anything to try to curb gun violence. Stonewalling everything that Obama proposes may not be a viable option for the House GOP. Plus, there are some cracks starting to show. Georgia Rep. Phil Gingrey, among the chamber’s most conservative members, said this week that he “would be willing to listen” to arguments for limiting high-capacity magazines and is open to closing the gun show loophole. This is not the sort of rhetoric we’ve been hearing from Republicans for years and could reflect a Sandy Hook effect – and portend a real opportunity for Obama to pass some of his agenda through the House.
The Senate, while controlled by Democrats, has its own problems for Obama too. The chamber’s top Democrat, Majority Leader Harry Reid, has all but declared the assault weapons ban dead and has spoken of gun control as an issue that’s not particularly high on his priority list. Reid’s attitude reflects the concerns of a number of Democratic senators who represent pro-gun states. Others include North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, and Montana’s Jon Tester, to name a few. None of these senators are particularly eager to go far out on a limb on gun control; especially if the House refuses to take action – or is only willing to take the most modest, watered down steps – don’t expect these senators to do much more.
Still, there’s a real possibility that some type of gun control bill will ultimately be enacted this year – which would be a remarkable achievement, given that Republicans run the House. Whether it would take a serious bite out of gun crime, though, is another matter. Obama is already starting the process by leaving out dramatic ideas like an aggressive gun buyback proposal, and if anything that he is proposing manages to reach his desk, it figures to be watered down. As with LBJ in ’68, the best achievement for Obama here may simply be proving that it’s possible to do something, anything, on guns – and reestablishing the issue as a priority for Democrats going forward.