WASHINGTON — Unsurprisingly, the Aurora, Colo., mass shooting has reignited a debate over whether tougher gun laws are needed. But congressional legislation is a long shot, especially in an election year.
Gun-control legislation is likely to be introduced again, as it was after other high-profile shootings, such as those at Columbine High School in 1999 and Virginia Tech in 2007.
But even gun-control advocates acknowledge they face a tough climb. Many Democrats have shied away from the issue since 2000, when losing presidential candidate Al Gore’s advocacy of gun control is believed to have cost him support in rural states.
When asked about prospects for gun-control legislation, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Friday, “I don’t believe it has a chance in this environment.” But Feinstein, a leading gun-control advocate who sponsored the federal assault weapons ban that Congress let lapse in 2004, did add: “Americans really have to begin to show some outrage at this.”
Brendan Daly, a former House Democratic leadership aide, also doubted any congressional action. “Congress didn’t act when one of its own members ... was shot last year,” he said, referring to then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz.
A divided public
Polls show the public divided over the issue. According to an April survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 49 percent of respondents said it’s more important to protect the right to own guns, while 45 percent said it’s more important to control gun ownership.
The survey found that independents, aggressively courted by both parties, have become more supportive of gun rights, with 55 percent saying it’s more important to protect the right to own guns and 40 percent saying it’s more important to control gun ownership.
Gun-control advocates in recent years have been on the defensive on Capitol Hill, fighting efforts to expand gun rights, such as allowing gun owners to carry concealed weapons across state lines.
A posting on Colorado Rep. Ed Perlmutter’s Facebook page on Friday underscored the strong feelings on the issue. “If ONE person inside that theater was armed, this situation would NOT have been as bad as it is. Stricter gun control means NOTHING to the criminal.”
The suspected Aurora shooter hadn’t committed any offenses that would have raised an alarm during required background checks, according to officials. Also, the suspect purchased all of the weapons — an AR-15 assault rifle, Remington shotgun and two Glock pistols — since May, and in Colorado, there are no regulations that would prohibit those guns from being owned.
“The common thread that runs through all of these mass shootings ... is guns equipped with high-capacity ammunition magazines, either handguns or assault rifles,” said Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center. “It appears that this shooter had both.”
She said the group favors legislation even tougher than the now-expired 1994 assault weapons ban. Legislation introduced by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., after last year’s Arizona shooting would target ammunition magazines containing more than 10 rounds. But the measure has languished in committee for more than a year.
Movement is not unheard of, though. In 2007, in response to the Virginia Tech shooting, Congress passed legislation aimed at expanding the federal database used to screen gun buyers to include more mental health records, but the results have drawn mixed reviews.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ratcheted up the debate Friday by calling on the presidential candidates to “tell us what they are going to do” to prevent similar shootings.
“No matter where you stand on the Second Amendment, no matter where you stand on guns, we have a right to hear from both of them concretely, not just in generalities — specifically what are they going to do about guns?” Bloomberg said on WOR radio.
President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have spoken little about gun control in their campaigns for the White House and showed no sign of shifting course after Friday’s mass shooting, one of the deadliest.
“It’s not one of the issues that either candidate has shown much inclination to discuss,” said Don Kettl, dean of the school of public policy at the University of Maryland. “There are more downside risks than upside gains in talking about it.”
In remarks Friday in Fort Myers, Fla., Obama made no mention of gun control as he called for a moment of silence for the shooting’s victims. The president canceled later campaign events and returned to Washington. Romney also sidestepped the gun issue in a speech in Bow, N.H., calling the killings a “hateful act.” Following the Giffords shooting in 2011, Obama called on Americans only to choose compassion over conflict.
Both candidates did set aside their campaign rhetoric Friday, urging Americans to unite at a time of national tragedy. Both campaigns announced they were pulling their ads in Colorado, a battleground state.