Virtually since the Obama administration took office, the White House has avoided touching the third-rail issue of gun control with a 10-foot pole. So will the mass shooting in Arizona that gravely injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and killed six others (including a federal judge) change their approach?
Gun control advocates hope so. Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., said in an interview that banning the high-capacity clips (the type used by alleged shooter Jared Lee Loughner) was “the smallest step you can take to do the most amount of good.”
But she’s still not sure if President Barack Obama, who has gotten flack from gun control advocates for his inaction on the issue, will make the legislation a bigger priority.
“I frankly don’t know what it’s going to take to get the Obama administration to do even the most minor positive policy change on guns,” Rand said. “They have a war basically brewing on the border, and there’s a lot they could do without legislation to address that problem, but that hasn’t moved them to act.”
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) asked for the White House to give the agency permission to require gun dealers to report bulk sales of semiautomatic weapons along the Mexican border. But the White House missed the ATF’s Jan. 5 deadline, with an administration official telling TPM the rule was still under review.
“They just ignore the issue as if it’s not there,” Rand said. “I think they buy the hype about the power of the gun lobby. I think they and the Democratic Party buy into this idea that if you cross the gun lobby, you’ll lose.”
A White House spokesman did not provide a statement in response to TPM’s questions about whether Obama supported the measure or whether the administration would make gun control a higher priority.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) said he’ll introduce a bill to ban the high capacity magazines once the Senate is back in session.
“We think that the ban on high-capacity magazines is an appropriate response to the shooting,” Rand told TPM. “I mean it’s clear that the shooter would not have been able to kill and injure as many people if he hadn’t had a 33-round magazine that allowed him to keep firing.”
More importantly, said Rand, these magazines and assault weapons are the common thread in virtually all mass shooters over the past 30 years, Rand told TPM.
Many people are asking how Loughner — who by many accounts acted erratically — was able to get a hold of a semiautomatic weapon. By September of 2010, Jared Loughner’s behavior at Pima Community College had become so frightening to peers and teachers alike that the school officials asked the young man not to come back until he received a mental health clearance.
But less than two months later, Loughner walked into a Sportsman’s Warehouse in Tucson and walked out a new owner of a semiautomatic Glock 19 with a high-capacity magazine. Loughner passed an instant background check—a test federal law requires all gun buyers to pass. The purchase has been corroborated with store receipts and surveillance video, according to an FBI affidavit.
Hours before the shooting, Loughner was reportedly turned away from a Walmart store when he tried to buy ammunition, but another nearby Walmart sold them to him, sources told the Wall Street Journal. The newspaper said it was unclear why he was rejected by the first Walmart clerk.
Arizona has some of the most permissive gun laws in the country. Last July, a new law went into effect allowing Arizona residents who are at least 21 years old to carry a concealed weapon without a permit.
When Janet Napolitano was governor, she vetoed a number of bills that would have loosened gun-control in the state. However, Gov. Jan Brewer (R-AZ) who became governor in 2009, was more sympathetic to gun rights groups and in April of last year signed the concealed weapons bill into law.
At a news conference on Sunday, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik levied harsh criticism at Arizona’s gun laws. “I’ve never been a proponent of letting everybody in this state carry weapons under any circumstance that they want—and that’s almost where we are,” he said. He also criticized proposed Arizona legislation that would allow students and teachers to carry concealed weapons on campus.
Another reason that the Obama administration may not want to push the gun control issue in the wake of the shooting is because Giffords herself was a longtime gun owner who believed strongly in the right to keep and bear arms. Giffords owns a Glock handgun and in 2008, she voted to repeal the ban on handguns in the nation’s capital. “As a long-time gun owner, I believe the right to keep and bear arms should not be dependent on the city in which you live,” said Giffords in a press release. “The provisions of the U.S. Constitution apply to all Americans, regardless of geography.”
“We have a long tradition of gun ownership in the United States,” Giffords said. “It is a tradition which every law-abiding citizen should be able to enjoy.”
But despite the heated commentary about gun control now taking center stage in American politics, it’s unclear that the Giffords shooting will have an impact on public support for federal gun control measures. According to polling data from Gallup, which has been measuring the public’s opinion on about gun-control for the past two years, it’s not likely. Surprisingly, Gallup data shows that support for tightening gun-control does not get a boost after high-profile gun violence.
Gallup asks: “In general, do you feel that the laws covering the sale of firearms should be made more strict, less strict, or kept as they are now?” Polling conducted in the aftermath of other gun violence incidents, like the shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech, shows support for stricter gun-control laws virtually unchanged.
The last time Gallup asked about gun laws, in October, 12 percent said they should be less strict, 44 percent of respondents said laws should be more strict, and 42 percent said they should stay the same.
Some pro-gun groups are already firing back at the efforts of gun control groups. Alan Gottlieb, chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, put out a statement calling the gun prohibition lobby “despicable” for “wasting no time at all in its attempt to exploit this hideous attack in an effort to further its political agenda. When will these people stop dancing in the blood of crime victims in an attempt to resuscitate their relevance?”