Why the Aurora Shooting Won't Affect Gun Laws

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If the Trayvon Martin and Gabrielle Giffords shootings didn't lead to a policy change, the Colorado tragedy probably won't either.

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The National Rifle Association is still winning. Friday's shooting in Colorado is likely to fade into the current gun-policy no man's land where there is much talk and little action.

And that's not because the NRA is all-powerful. It's because lawmakers do not face or fear retaliation from gun-control supporters when they consider measures that loosen gun restrictions.

"The political reality is that the NRA is not as powerful as people believe, but there has not been enough grassroots activism and political support for tough gun laws. For members of Congress who have 50 things to care about, a vote for tougher gun laws can get you into trouble without much political reward," said Mark Glaze, the director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition of 700 Republican and Democratic mayors that lobbies for protecting police officers from illegal weapons with tougher background checks and better coordination with federal law enforcement.

If the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida, the assassination attempt on former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, the massacre of 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007, and a shooting spree outside an Alabama bar earlier this week haven't punctured the legislative arena, it's hard to imagine that the Colorado incident will be received any differently.

President Obama and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney have been largely absent on the issue of guns, a fact gun-control advocates are well aware of. Attorney General Eric Holder sought a reinstatement of the federal assault-weapons ban in 2009, but there has been no movement on that front since that time. After the Giffords shooting in January 2011, Obama called for more-robust background checks. In the wake of the Colorado shooting, he called for "prayer and reflection."

Romney signed a permanent assault-weapons ban in Massachusetts in 2004, but has shied away from addressing the ban on a national scale. He promised the NRA earlier this year that he would "stand up for the rights of hunters, sportsmen, and those seeking to protect their homes and their families." He has not made any statements to suggest that he would overturn current gun laws. Romney on Friday expressed sympathy to the Colorado families. "There is something we can do. We can offer comfort to someone near us," he said.

"The president and this Congress have done nothing," said Ladd Everitt, communications director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. On Obama and Romney, he observed, "They're both kind of guys that have blown with the political winds .... We haven't seen a lot of courage."

Everitt said the House is a lost cause for gun-control legislation, even in the wake of a tragedy like Colorado's. But he said the Senate might provide some fertile ground for action. The first hurdle, of course, is to figure out what to ask for.

One possibility is legislation sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., to ban "large capacity ammunition feeding devices." But that would only work if the Colorado shooter used a legally purchased magazine rifle. Even then, that bill faces long odds. A slightly easier lift in Congress might be another Maloney bill (sponsored in the Senate by Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.) to tighten up the background-check reporting system.

Pro-gun advocates say this is a tired strategy of exploiting a tragedy to carve out gun rights. "Here's what we're concerned about. It's not a massive gun-control bill greatly [restricting] people's rights. It's the salami, so the other side can figure out just how thin a slice they can cut off the Second Amendment and they settle for that," said John Velleco, director of federal affairs for Gun Owners of America.

But who are we kidding? This is a town that can barely handle the upcoming fiscal cliff that everyone agrees should be fixed. It is not exactly a friendly political environment for debating tough issues like how to assess the mental health of people who want to buy guns. Banning gun sales among Republicans is as taboo as raising taxes. Velloco said he is confident that members of Congress understand that "restricting the right of law-abiding citizens is not going to stop a crazed madman."

Last month's House vote to hold Holder in contempt of Congress is an indication of just how far the fear of NRA backlash has penetrated the Congress. The NRA cheered that vote and got 17 Democrats to join with Republicans in the unprecedented move. Gun-control advocates say they don't have the same kind of grassroots pull on their side to counteract the NRA's power.

The lobbying figures bear out the imbalance. Last year, the NRA spent $2.9 million on lobbying, while gun-control advocates spent about one-tenth of that amount, a paltry $240,000, according to OpenSecrets.org.

One of the biggest recipients of the NRA money is House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who has received $7,450 so far in this election cycle. "My thoughts and prayers are with all the victims, their families and the entire Colorado community," Cantor said in a tweet. Another top NRA political contribution recipient, Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., said the Colorado shootings "are nothing short of an absolute tragedy."

The NRA is keeping a similarly low profile in the wake of the incident. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families and the Aurora, Colorado, community. NRA will not be making any further statements until all the facts are known," said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam.

As long as nobody stands up on the other side to call for clear and immediate restrictions on gun purchases, the pro-gun lobby is likely to slide through the crisis without any serious threat to its pet issues.

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Fawn Johnson is a correspondent for National Journal.

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