Speaking at the memorial service in Tucson, Ariz., President Obama said that it is human nature to look for explanations and to search for solutions when something horrific happens, as it did on an otherwise ordinary Saturday morning in a Safeway parking lot. The volley of shots that left six dead and 14 others wounded has prompted calls for tighter gun laws, and as Obama spoke
, advocates of gun control listened closely for some gesture of support in their direction. The closest the president came, and it was coded at best, is when he declared, "Yes, we have to examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of violence in the future."
Among those old assumptions is the belief that the taste for guns is in America's DNA, and that any attempt to rein in the gun culture will be blocked by the National Rifle Association.
Few Republicans have any interest in gun control legislation, and Democrats are scared of the NRA, which means that any effort to restrict the size of ammunition clips sold to private citizens is doomed. Conventional wisdom says it is futile to advance gun regulation in the Congress -- the votes aren't there.
Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Center
to Restrict Gun Violence, disagrees, and he's been in the trenches a long time, first as a politician and Republican mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind., and since 2006 as top advocate for a cause that most elected officials prefer to ignore.
I asked Helmke who, besides New York Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, would support new firearms regulations. McCarthy's husband was killed and her son grievously wounded in a 1993 gun rampage on the Long Island Railroad, so she has more than a passing interest in the subject. "More than Carolyn," Helmke said, ticking off California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, and Illinois Rep. Mike Quigley, all Democrats and sympathetic to the cause. "Our challenge now is to find some rural Democrats, and Republicans," he said, adding, "Actually, our real challenge is to get the president to weigh in."
The Brady Center was founded by James and Sarah Brady in the wake of the assassination attempt on President Reagan and the gunshot wound to the head that James Brady survived, but which sidelined him as Reagan's press secretary. In the years since, shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech spurred calls for more controls on guns, but little was done. Since Obama took office, the firearms laws in many places, including Arizona, have gotten more lax, and the Supreme Court has ruled that gun bans in the District of Columbia and Chicago are unconstitutional.
This time is different, says Helmke, and here's why:
These gunshots hit closer to home. "I can't remember the last time a congressman was targeted here," he says -- not since 1978 and the death of California Rep. Leo Ryan
in the Jonestown massacre. And the Tucson victims -- a recently engaged 30-year-old, a beloved federal judge, a 9-year-old girl born on 9/11 -- are such storied figures that unless someone were writing a movie script, they'd be accused of making this up, says Helmke.
2) The legislation that McCarthy is proposing in the House and Lautenberg in the Senate -- a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips -- is narrowly drawn and was once law as part of the assault weapons ban that was in effect from 1994 to 2004. "It was a law that worked, and it's directly related to what happened in Tucson," says Helmke. Loughner was tackled after firing 31 bullets as he stopped to put in a new clip. If magazine clips were limited to ten rounds, as McCarthy proposes, Loughner would have been shut down earlier and the damage lessened.
3) The fact the Loughner was able to obtain a gun legally shows how weak our laws are. The fact that he was dangerous enough to be rejected by the military and get kicked out of algebra class should prompt congressional hearings to investigate the background checks that are in place, and examine what events can be flagged to tip off potentially violent behavior. The current bar for the background check for the no-buy list is too low.
There have been few victories on the gun control side of the policy agenda since 1993 and 1994, when Clinton signed the Brady Handgun Violence Protection bill and the assault weapons ban. The proposal now being advanced is so narrow, affecting only the size of ammunition clips, that Helmke says, "If we could win on that, it would show that you can pass gun control and the sky doesn't fall in."