After the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut last December, many expected Congress to temporarily put aside its dysfunction and pass a limited but not inconsequential package aimed at regulating the sale of firearms. However, three and a half months have passed since the massacre, and a gun control bill has not yet come to a floor vote in either chamber.
The centerpiece of the current Senate plan is a mandate for universal background checks on would-be firearm owners. This is the least controversial measure that has come to a debate; a CBS News/New York Times poll taken in January found that 92 percent of those surveyed support universal background checks. Among households with NRA members, support for universal background checks is nearly as strong, with 85 percent in favor.
For a number of reasons, though, the measure has failed to come to a vote. Not least of these is a movement spearheaded by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to include an assault weapons ban in the legislation. The Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee passed Sen. Feinstein’s measure by a party-line vote, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) ultimately elected to drop the measure from the final Senate package.
Feinstein, a liberal Democrat from a solidly blue state, announced, “I’m not going to lay down and play dead” on the legislation, vowing to keep fighting for an assault weapons ban. Reid, though, decided to drop the ban due to the risk that it would torpedo the gun control package should it come to a floor vote in the Senate or the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
The Democratic Party’s control of the Senate hinges on its ability to win seats in Republican-leaning states. While a fair share of Senate Democrats – including all on the Senate Judiciary Committee – represent very liberal states, there are also dozens who represent moderate or conservative states. Should the final gun control package come down too far to the left, these Democrats may defect and vote against the legislation.
Feinstein and Reid are emblematic of these two breeds of Senate Democrats. Not only does Feinstein hail from a strongly Democratic state, she also has a personal interest in passing a gun control package. In 1978, Feinstein discovered the body of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to political office in America, moments after he had been shot and killed. Since the assassination, Feinstein has relentlessly pursued gun control legislation, authoring the 1994 ban on assault weapons which has since expired.
Reid, by contrast, has received support from the NRA and represents a perennial swing state. In 2010 he waged a tough reelection battle against Republican challenger Sharron Angle. Though Reid will not be up for reelection in the upcoming cycle, many Democrats will, some representing more conservative states. These include Mark Begich (D-AK), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Mark Pryor (D-AR), and Kay Hagan (D-NC). Already facing fierce battles, these Democrats will be reluctant to vote for a package that reaches too far in the eyes of their constituents.
In the current Congress, the Democratic leadership has seen defections from this group on routine votes like budget resolutions. Reid’s refusal to include Feinstein’s provision, then, is understandable. In addition, Reid will need votes from moderate Republicans to clear the 60-vote threshold required to overcome a filibuster.
Vice President Joe Biden, who worked with many senior Republicans during his time in the Senate, has held private meetings with many over the course of this week, likely to discuss the gun control legislation that has become a priority for the Obama Administration. But many, notably Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), have been reluctant to support the legislation. Graham said he would not vote for the Democrats’ package but would also not support a filibuster, a tacit signal that he is not opposed to it but fears outright support would bring a primary challenge from the right in 2014.
Republicans and Democrats alike have also expressed concern that passing the legislation too fast and with a slim majority of votes would expose it to criticism and potentially a legal challenge, as was the case with President Obama’s healthcare law.
The Obama Administration has made gun control and other social issues such as immigration priorities for the second term. Given the unexpected emphasis in the 2012 presidential campaign placed on social issues, President Obama will naturally be looking to populate his legacy with reform on these persistent issues. Earlier this week, Obama made a trip to Connecticut, the state of the Newtown massacre. The state legislatures in Connecticut and Colorado, another state which experienced gun violence last year, are soon expected to pass more comprehensive gun control packages.
However, such far-reaching legislation is more difficult to accomplish on the national level, and the previous months’ debate exposes the reality that the Democratic party is more expansive than the very liberal politicians found in Connecticut and California, and their interests are more diverse. Mr. Obama and the Senate Democratic leadership will have to accept that the gun control plan may have to stop at background checks, or else the whole package risks defeat.