The original GOP gun flip-flop

Fourteen years ago, more than 30 Republican senators voted to close the so-called gun show loophole

Published April 3, 2013 10:20PM (EDT)

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)               (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

If you've been following the gun control debate, you probably know that universal background checks are on life support after Republicans lawmakers flip-flopped on their support for closing the private seller loophole. You may also know that the National Rifle Association itself once supported universal background checks, even though it's leading the charge against them now.

But would Republicans really kill a bid to expand background checks, even though they supported them so recently and despite polls showing nine in 10 American favor an expansion?

We don't have to wonder because they already did, back in 1999 after the Columbine shooting. Thirty-one Senate Republicans -- including current Minority Leader Mitch McConnell -- joined with Democrats to close the gun show loophole, only to have their colleagues in the House kill it. The saga has largely escaped notice so far this year, but offers some important lessons for those who favor gun control today.

By 1999, pro-gun control forces hadn’t seen progress since Republicans captured control of both houses of Congress five years earlier. But after the Columbine school shooting in late April, public opinion shifted dramatically and President Clinton pushed to close the so-called gun show loophole and pass a host of other gun control measures.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 89 percent of Americans favored background checks for people buying guns at gun shows -- almost identical to polls today.

In fact, when Senate Republicans narrowly defeated a Democratic measure to close the gun show loophole on May 12 of that year, the public outcry was so intense that the GOPers reversed course within less than 24 hours. “As outraged constituents lit up phone lines on Capitol Hill to protest the earlier vote and the Clinton administration launched a barrage of criticism, Senate leaders huddled with National Rifle Association lobbyists and GOP strategists to undo what several Republicans feared could arouse voter reprisals in next year's elections,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported at the time.

Sen. John McCain joined with Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch and Sen. Larry Craig, an NRA board member, to come up with their own proposal. The GOP bill required anyone attending a gun show with the intent of selling a firearm to get a background check on purchasers, but gave law enforcement only 24 hours to review the check, instead of the typical three days, and didn’t cover flea markets or pawn shops. It passed by a single vote, largely along party lines.

“There was a realization that there was a loophole that had to be closed,” McCain said. (A year later, McCain would go on to cut an ad endorsing two state measures to enact universal background checks, as Greg Sargent reported yesterday.)

But Democrats weren't satisfied and demanded more. Clinton said the GOP bill was “riddled with high-caliber loopholes" and Republicans caved -- they dismissed their own bill and took up the Democratic proposal once again. “They’re getting the shit kicked out of them in the media and they know it; they’re in complete disarray. Basically, the country is seeing just how beholden the Republican caucus is to the NRA,” an unnamed Democratic staffer told Jake Tapper, then at Salon.

Just two weeks later, victory came when Vice President Al Gore cast the deciding vote to approve the Democratic amendment, which was attached to a larger juvenile justice bill introduced by New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg, one of Congress’ most outspoken proponents of gun control.

Six moderate GOPers voted for the amendment to close the loophole. But a whopping 31 Senate Republicans voted for final passage of the larger bill, including the Democratic provision to mandate background checks at gun shows, giving it a huge 73-25 majority. McConnell voted in favor, as did Orrin Hatch and Jeff Sessions, two of the most powerful Republicans in the upper chamber today, along with conservative stalwarts like Rick Santorum, Strom Thurmond and Jon Kyl.

"This is a turning point for our country," Gore proclaimed. But the victory was short-lived.

In June, the Republican-controlled House passed a bill with a much weaker background check provision, and rejected the Senate version. Then nothing happened. Usually, the Senate and House would each appoint representatives to hash out the differences between their two bills. But instead, House Republicans simply refused to appoint negotiators for months, sapping momentum from the bill.

By the time the first anniversary of the Columbine shooting rolled around in April of 2000, there had still been no forward motion.

Activists kept up the pressure for months, as did Clinton, but the public had grown weary and lawmakers no longer faced the constituent pressure of the previous year. "Despite a series of tragic shootings in our nation's schools, places of worship, day care centers, and workplaces Congress has stalled passage of common-sense gun safety legislation that passed in the Senate for over one year," Clinton said in November of 2000, 18 months after the Senate passed a bill with a large bipartisan majority to close the loophole. But by then, the election had sealed the fate of the Democratic bill and universal background checks, at least until 2013.

The saga provides two big lessons. First, it shows that advocates must move quickly in order to capitalize on the public outcry following a mass a shooting like the one at Columbine. Already, three and half months after Sandy Hook, momentum seems to be flagging as Republicans walk away from one commitment after another. It may be too late, but if it's not, Democrats need to move quickly while they can.

And second, it shows that those opposed to reform are not above using every procedural hurdle at their disposal to thwart reform, even when the vast majority of Americans support change and when their own party has voted for it just months earlier. In 1999, the public opinion landscape was even more favorable than it is today, but a minority of Republicans in leadership were able to kill it. More important, they weren't punished for it in the next election. If you were a Republican lawmaker today, the experience of 14 years ago might convince you to obstruct, hunker down and hope the issue just goes away.

UPDATE: In 2001, the NRA's official magazine wrote a lengthy article attacking John McCain, calling him "one of the premier flag carriers for the enemies of the Second Amendment."

By Alex Seitz-Wald

MORE FROM Alex Seitz-Wald

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Background Checks Gun Control Guns Nra