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The Politics of Gun Control

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The Politics of Gun Control

In recent years, political discourse about gun control and the Second Amendment has become increasingly volatile. Gun lobbies such as the National Rifle Association are more organized and aggressive and their issue agenda has evolved as new and more powerful weapons and militia appear. On the other side of the debate, the critical wounding of James Brady gave gun control advocates a visible martyr with strong ties to Republican conservatives. In sum, gun control and the right to bear arms have become hotly disputed issues where political alignments are constantly shifting.
This paper will examine gun control legislation and look at factors that affect party cohesion on this specific issue. Paying special attention to special interest groups, particularly the National Rifle Association (NRA) and their campaign contributions, the congressional districts and the constituents, and third look at how current events and the media have had an impact on political action. I will show that political action on the Hill, by introducing bills and voting, is affected by those three things.
I'll begin by looking at one of the most recent pieces of legislation to be on the floor of the House, H.R. 2122 which failed to pass on June 19, 1999. Democratic Congressman John Dingell from Michigan introduced an amendment (H.A. 215) which passed on June 18, 1999 with a vote of 218-211. This amendment decreases the time allowed for a background check at a gun show from 72 hours to 24 hours. It also requires the FBI to prioritize background checks requested at gun shows be answered before other background check request. The amendment could also increase the minimum prison penalty to 15 years for crimes committed in large capacity ammunition clips (Library of Congress, Thomas)
In 1994 Congressman Dingell, then a board member of the National Rifle Association (NRA), infuriated the group by voting for his party's crime bill, which banned assault weapons. Dingell won re-election, but other old-timers who voted for the bill did not, and the Democrats lost control of Congress. So when the latest gun-control bill came up in June, Dingell didn't take any chances. This time, instead of backing the president, he decided to join with Republicans and NRA lobbyists to author a compromise. After a week of emotional debate, Dingell's bill went down to defeat on both sides of the aisle, all but killing any chance for stricter gun laws this year.
The loss was crushing to anti-gun forces and the White House. In the wake of the Columbine massacre, polls show that more than 80 percent of Americans back stricter laws (Newsweek). In May of 1999, the Senate took advantage of the national mood to pass a tough law requiring safety locks on new handguns and a detailed background check on buyers at gun shows. But as they have so many times before, activists underestimated the ferocity and might of the NRA and its nearly 3 million members. (
The NRA unleashed thousands of callers to clog congressional switchboards while a dozen lobbyists worked the halls. The group's Web site featured a dubious article implying that Bill Clinton, like the Nazis, was trying to disarm the populace ( In the end, the House passed H.R.1501, The Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 1999, a law allowing the Ten Commandments to be displayed in schools, but backed away from gun control. It was just the latest example of a strange political disconnect that has characterized the gun debate for most of this century. That is, gun-control initiative has enjoyed strong public support?only to be weakened or killed by the Congress.
This time, it was Dingell who tinkered with the process. Dingell worried that a strong gun-control law could cost Democrats critical seats in the South and West?wrecking the party's hopes of winning a majority in November. His solution: draft his own compromise bill, with the NRA's blessing, that called for less thorough background checks for buyers at gun shows. Dingell's bill attracted more than 40 vulnerable Democrats, who could avoid the wrath of the gun lobby but still tell constituents they voted for gun control. The plan also reaped unexpected rewards. When Republicans?who thought even the compromise was too tough?killed the bill, they handed House Democrats, and Al Gore, a powerful campaign theme to use against the GOP in the upcoming election. Ironically, even Dingell himself voted against the bill he authored (Newsweek, June 1999).
President Clinton made phone calls to appeal to 14 conservative ?blue dog? Democrats and moderate Republicans. He got 12 of them. One of those who ultimately snubbed Clinton was Congressman Nick Lampson, a Texas Democrat who watched his powerful predecessor, Jack Brooks, get taken down after the 1994 gun vote. Lampson wasn't about to repeat the mistake. ?From the time I ran, it was clear that I would vote to protect the rights of all citizens to buy and bear arms,? Lampson said in an interview. (Newsweek, June 1999)
It's hard to blame vulnerable Democrats for taking cover. It's a common misperception that the NRA's power derives from its money. The real muscle of the group is its tenacious membership. Its members will mobilize; they'll join together and lobby by calling, writing, and sending faxes. They?ve certainly had plenty of practice. June's gun vote was just the latest in a long string of NRA victories. In 1968, with some 70 percent of the public supporting stepped-up gun control, the NRA thwarted President Johnson's call for registering all guns. Congress did manage to ban the import of lethal junk guns known as Saturday night specials, but domestic manufacturers rushed to fill the void. Four years later, the NRA helped kill a bill that would have banned Saturday night specials altogether. In 1986 the NRA worked to weaken a ban on so-called cop-killer bullets. The streak was interrupted in 1993, when Clinton stung the NRA by passing the most sweeping gun-control law on the books: the Brady Bill (Spitzer, 1995), named after former White House press secretary James Brady. Brady and his wife, Sarah, became proponents of gun control after Brady was shot and seriously wounded during a 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.
The so-called Brady Law, which went into effect in 1994, initially provided a five-day waiting period to allow local law enforcement officials to make sure the purchaser is not disqualified from owning a handgun. The law also established licensing fees. In 1998 a new computerized verification system replaced the five-day waiting period requirement. Under the National Instant Criminal Background ...

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