As Congress holds moments of silence to honor the victims of the Colorado shooting rampage that claimed a dozen lives and wounded 58 others, some Democratic lawmakers are raising a sharp cry for stricter gun control laws.
Nevada Democrats would rather they didn’t just now.
Sen. Harry Reid danced around three gun control questions in a row on Tuesday, finally rebuffing reporters wanting to know whether Reid supported calls to revisit at least the federal ban on assault weapons.
“You guys, I am not going to be here with each of you debating gun control,” Reid said. “We have to be very, very patient, and by that I don’t mean forever patient, but I think we have to wait and see how this plays out. ... I think we should just wait for a reasonable period of time before people go around saying what we should and what we shouldn’t do.”
Reid would not say how long a reasonable period of time might be. But a group of gun control advocates are pretty convinced the debate should start now.
Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette, longtime gun control advocate Rep. Carolyn McCarthy of New York, and New Jersey Sens. Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg made a formal appeal Tuesday morning to take up a new ban on the large-magazine weapons that were banned from being sold in the United States from 1994 to 2004.
The assault weapons ban covered semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15, the largest firearm the gunman used when he began firing into a midnight showing of the latest Batman movie in a crowded Aurora, Colo. theater.
“Even though the police responded rapidly — within 90 seconds — with his high-capacity magazine, the gunman had more than enough time to carry out his reign of terror,” Lautenberg, the author of a new assault weapons ban, said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “The victims of these tragedies and their families deserve more than solidarity and mourning. They deserve our attention, our action.”
Rep. Shelley Berkley, exiting the House chamber after a moment of silence for the victims Tuesday afternoon, agreed that gun control is something “that the United States Congress and the American people need to have a conversation about.”
But not now.
“I just don’t think this is the time to reopen any political discussions. ... We can have a more substantive conversation when this tragedy is behind us, and right now it’s still pretty raw,” Berkley said.
Gun control is an unpopular issue to raise in fiercely libertarian Nevada, and a risky one to discuss during an election year, even when you’re fairly clear about your affinity for the Second Amendment. Reid voted against the Assault Weapons Ban in 1993; Berkley wasn’t in Congress then but says she is “in favor of responsible gun ownership” and “believe[s] in the Second Amendment and people’s right to bear arms.”
Every summer or fall, the National Rifle Association comes out with rankings and endorsements of lawmakers in electoral contests. In 2010, the group refused to endorse in the matchup between Reid and his opponent, Sharron Angle. An NRA spokeswoman did not respond to a request Tuesday for the organization’s latest assessment of Berkley and her chief competitor for the Senate, Dean Heller.
The NRA has not yet officially commented on the Colorado shootings, but in the aftermath of past tragedies, it has endorsed the view that looser gun laws would enable victims to fire back on assailants, disabling the attack. In anticipation of such a response, gun control advocates say the level of bulletproof gear the shooter wore, and the firepower of the weapons he chose, make defense of the right to buy semi-automatic firearms untenable.
But not necessarily with voters. According to a collection of polls posted in the Washington Post, a majority of Americans wanted tighter gun control laws when the assault weapons ban was passed. Now a majority of Americans don’t.
Reports of another poll, however, conducted recently by Republican strategist Frank Luntz showed that a majority of gun owners, and nearly three-quarters of NRA members, would support some gun control measures, like criminal background checks. The poll apparently did not ask about an assault weapons ban.
Congressional gun control advocates, however, may not have to worry as much about public opinion as they do pressure from the upper ranks of the Democratic party to keep quiet. Reid’s natural reticence to take up gun control issues was on full display Tuesday, and while President Barack Obama has supported the idea of gun control in the past, his White House staff is sending dissuading messages.
“The president’s view is that we can take steps to keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have them under existing law,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Sunday. “That’s his focus right now.”
That makes it unlikely that a small band of Democrats — however vocal — will be able to effect stricter gun control laws anytime soon.