COMMENTARY | The amazing resilience and encouraging recovery of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has been an inspiring story to come from the carnage that occurred Jan. 8 in Tucson, Ariz.. On that day, a mentally disturbed young man, Jared Lee Loughner, opened fire during a meeting with Giffords’ constituents, killing six and wounding 13, including the congresswoman. Congress rallied around their fallen comrade, and Sen. John McCain sponsored a bill condemning the violent act and extolling the victims and heroes of that fateful day. But in addition to supporting Giffords, the violence sparked discussions of gun control and the safety of elected officials.
A short-lived flurry of legislative activity followed shortly after the attack in response to concern over lawmaker safety. Republican Rep. Pete King of New York initially took the lead, proposing to make it a federal offense to bring a firearm within 1,000 feet of the president, vice president, or any member of Congress. Outside of the legislative process, federal and state elected officials talked of arming themselves for defense. Over the ensuing weeks and months, such efforts have appeared to fade away, becoming eclipsed by the more incendiary issue of gun control.
Whatever short term unity that may have been engendered by an attack on one of their own never translated into any significant bipartisan congressional action. Quite the contrary; not a month had passed before a series of bills started to be introduced that reflected long-held partisan gun control ideology on both sides of the aisle:
On Jan. 25, in spite of long-held Republican opposition to such legislation, the Gun Show Background Check Act of 2011 – which seeks to expand criminal background checks to people who purchase guns at gun shows – was introduced into the Senate by Democrat Frank Lautenberg along with 12 other Democratic and no Republican cosponsors. Two weeks later a similar bill (H.R. 591) was introduced into the House by Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, again without any Republican support.
If gun control advocates expected reluctance on the part of gun rights supporters in Congress in light of the Tucson shootings, they would soon find this to not be the case. On Feb. 10, the Second Amendment Enforcement Act was introduced by Arkansas Democratic Rep. Mike Ross, cosponsored by 44 Republicans and nine other Democrats, which among other things appears to loosen controls on semiautomatic weapons.
Less than two weeks later, on Feb. 18, Republican Rep. Cliff Stearns sponsored the National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act along with 116 cosponsors – only 18 of whom are Democrats. This bill, if enacted, will allow easier movement of a legally registered bearer of a concealed weapon to carry that weapon into another state.
One of the few areas where there has been at least verbal agreement has been on increasing the ability to identify those who, like Loughner, should never be able to acquire a weapon due to being disqualified by mental illness, drug use, or felony convictions. On March 2, Sen. Chuck Schumer introduced S436, the Fix Gun Checks Act of 2011, intended to make sure “all individuals who should be prohibited from buying a gun are listed in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.” Tellingly, there are no Republican sponsors for this bill either.
President Obama, in a bid to find common ground on gun control, wrote an op-ed that was published in the Arizona Daily Star on March 13. In it he reiterated his belief in Second Amendment rights and he proposed three points of action that revolve around enhancing national background checks. The following day, the National Rifle Association issued its response, effectively declaring that Obama was insincere at best, if not outright dishonest about his call for a unified approach to addressing the kind of violence perpetrated against Giffords and her supporters.
Considering the political developments since the tragic events in Tucson, what can we expect might change in the tone or topics of American politics over the next year? Not much, if history is any indicator. An interesting Gallup analysis released shortly after Tucson reported that despite high profile shootings over the past 20 years, “Americans have grown less supportive of strengthening gun laws in the United States.” Even after the Columbine High School mass shootings, which did cause a “slight increase” in support for stricter gun control legislation, the downward trend for such support has continued mostly unabated.
The most sincere effort in response to the shootings in Tucson might be the tweaking of the federal background check system, and possibly additional resources to address the issue of mental health as it relates to public safety. But in all likelihood, the nation isn’t going to see any great effort to deal with the fundamental causes of the violence experienced in Tucson.