Congress’ first official stirrings on federal gun control since the December Newtown shooting tragedy began today with a hearing headed by Sen. Patrick Leahy’s Judiciary Committee titled “What Should America Do About Gun Violence?”
Leahy, in the limelight as the chairman of the panel, opened the session by reiterating his support for a legislative crackdown on illegal gun trafficking and requiring universal background checks, calling the latter “a simple matter of common sense.”
But in his opening statement and his later questioning of the five testifying witnesses, Leahy didn’t stake out a definitive position on a potential ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, measures supported by Judiciary Committee members Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Leahy spokesman David Carle wouldn’t say what Leahy’s position on banning assault weapons is, saying only: “He supported the earlier assault weapons ban, and wants to look at the value of renewing that, of reinstating that.”
“He’s talked about the possible value of limiting the size of magazines. The committee hasn’t gotten to the stage of drafting legislation yet. This is the opening hearing in this process,” said Carle. Leahy needs time to study the issues, he said.
While Leahy hasn’t yet endorsed or opposed an assault weapons ban, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has said he won’t let a gun control bill pass the Senate unless it could also pass the GOP-controlled House, Politico reports.
The hearing’s five witnesses came from a variety of backgrounds, including a policy analyst and Denver University constitutional law professor, the Baltimore County police chief, and the CEO of the National Rifle Association.
Gabrielle Giffords, the former Democratic congresswoman from Arizona who survived a gunshot wound to the head in 2011, started the hearing with an emotional statement, saying haltingly: “Violence is a big problem. Too many children are dying. Too many children.”
She urged lawmakers on. “We must do something,” she said. “It will be hard. But the time is now. You must act. Be bold. Be courageous. Americans are counting on you.”
Her husband, Mark Kelley, a former astronaut and a founder of the gun control group Americans for Responsible Solutions, testified in support of more stringent background checks and limits on magazine capacities.
Republican lawmakers, however, questioned throughout whether the Obama administration had done enough to enforce gun control laws already on the books, citing much fewer federal prosecutions involving improper gun purchases as compared to the Bush administration.
Controversial NRA chief Wayne LaPierre suggested that “safe and responsible gun ownership” education remained the solution, saying that of 76,000 firearm purchases blocked by federal instant checks in 2010, only 44 cases were actually prosecuted.
LaPierre argued for armed security guards in schools as the most realistic and immediate solution to gun violence, saying that he wants a model “School Shield” program to be developed by Department of Homeland Security officials.
Policy analyst professor David Kopel, of the libertarian think tank Cato Institute, also said that a 2004 study done for the Department of Justice study on the effects of the 1994-2004 federal assault weapons ban showed that the ban had “done nothing. It had not saved lives; it had not reduced the number of bullets that were fired in crimes. It had been a failure.”
“It had to some minor degree switched the types of guns used in crimes,” said Kopel. “But it didn’t reduce crime overall.” Kopel, too, suggested that the best solution remained to arm teachers in schools, as has been practiced in Utah effectively for many years, he said.
But the 2004 study gives a more nuanced portrait of the ban’s effects, calling them “mixed” and saying that the share of gun crimes involving assault weapons declined by 17 percent post-ban, adding that it would be premature to judge the ban’s success until several more years had passed.
The report’s executive summary also says that the decline in assault weapons’ use was offset by increased use of high capacity magazines, with that targeted ban failing to work because of “exempted pre-ban magazines, which has been enhanced by recent imports.”
Top Republican Judiciary member Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in his opening remarks that improving the nation’s mental health system must be part of the solution, adding that violent video games were probably partly responsible for gun violence.
“Although Newtown and Tucson are terrible tragedies, the deaths in Newtown should not be used to put forward every gun control measure that’s been floating around for years,” said Grassley, in his opening remarks. “Because the problem is greater than just guns alone.”
“Above all, we should not rush to pass legislation that will not reduce mass killings. Banning guns based on their appearance does not make sense. The 1994 assault weapon ban did not stop Columbine. The Justice Department found the ban ineffective. Scholars have indicated that refining or expanding such legislation will not cut gun violence,” said Grassley.
Although Democrats agreed that mental health and background checks played into a comprehensive solution, at least two senators kept their minds focused on a renewed assault weapons ban.
“When we discuss ways to stop violence, guns must be included in that discussion,” said Schumer. “Not including guns when discussing mass killings is like not including cigarettes when discussing lung cancer.”
Feinstein noted during the discussion that an armed school guard at Columbine had failed to stop the killings there, adding that malls, movie theaters, and local businesses couldn’t all host armed guards.
“I think most people believe that, sure, we can have guards at schools,” she said. “The question comes: what do you do about the malls then? What do you do about our movie theaters? What do you do about businesses? We can’t have a totally armed society.”
In written testimony, Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson said that about 6.6 million gun transactions happened without a background check from November 2011 to November 2012. Background checks stopped about 2 million prohibited purchases between 1994 and 2009.
In other arguments, attorney Gayle Trotter with the Independent Women’s Forum said that assault weapons equalized the physical inequalities between male attackers and female defendants, allowing women to protect themselves readily when attacked in their homes or elsewhere.
How Leahy can manage the debate
Retired Middlebury College political scientist Eric Davis says that Leahy’s chief challenge as head of the panel taking testimony on the highly charged issue of gun control will be steering legislation which achieves meaningful reform through the Senate.
“Trying to put together a bill that can pass the Senate, but at the same time has enough substance in it that it would be a meaningful change from current law, it’s still too early to say whether this is going to happen,” said Davis.
“In the Senate, individual members have a lot of power to prevent bills coming to the floor, through filibusters and other procedural tactics.”
“It’s going to be a real challenge for him. I’m not sure whether he can do that,” he said. “If Senate Republicans decide they don’t want to negotiate with Leahy, but simply resort to the filibuster, any bill he reports out of committee is dead on the Senate floor, much less coming out for a vote in the House.”
Chris Graff, a former Associated Press bureau chief in Montpelier who has tracked Leahy’s long political career closely, said the hearing is only one major moment among many in Leahy’s high-profile political career.
“The [Judiciary] committee itself is representative of the country,” said Graff, citing the diverse spectrum of political ideology on the committee, thanks to sitting senators like Jeff Sessions, R-Ala,, and Feinstein, who introduced the initial legislation banning assault weapons this month.
“This is a really tough issue that divides people on geography: rural, urban, Republican, Democrat … You’ve got very conservative folks there, you’ve got basically the whole divide.”
“Holding a hearing and then actually getting something through Senate Judiciary are two entirely different things,” said Graff.
But, added Graff, “He has taken this committee, a pretty divided committee, through some pretty divided issues before. Maybe he thought he was the one who could help bring it through the ideological divide, that is in there, on gun control.”
In the past several weeks, Gov. Peter Shumlin has said that gun control should be mostly left to federal politicians, since state-level legislation would be largely ineffective. At a Barre press conference today, he reiterated that position, saying: “Vermonters have tremendous respect for the way we deal with guns in this state. They are part of our culture: We hunt, we use them wisely, and any solution has to be a 50-state solution.”
Although Shumlin backs President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden’s ambitious gun control proposals, he shied away from backing an outright federal assault weapons ban, saying his support depends on which weapons are included.
Leahy announced at the end of his hearing that he intends to mark up gun control legislation next month.