The Real Debate on Gun Laws Starts Now

Emerging details and unexpected endorsements have ratcheted up both sides of the debate for what looks to be a major fight over the future of gun legislation. The questions now: What might the new laws look like? And how soon can anything really happen, if at all?

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It's been nearly a month since the Newtown school shooting, but rather than fade away, as it has after so many previous tragedies, the push for new gun legislation is actually gaining steam. A weekend story in The Washington Post leaked a few of the proposals being considered by Vice President Joe Biden's gun-control task force, which are due by the end of this month, and emerging details and unexpected endorsements have ratcheted up both sides of the debate for what looks to be a major fight over the future of guns in America. Biden will meet with representatives from the NRA and other gun advocacy groups this week, the White House announced this afternoon. The questions now: What might the new laws look like? And how soon can anything really happen, if at all?

On the first day of Congress' new session last week, 10 different bills relating to gun control were introduced, as members scrambled over themselves to get their proposals on the record. (Two were actually proposals to claw back gun control, by eliminating "gun-free" school zones.) Some of those bills mirrored the ideas being discussed by Biden's group, while others went off in other more fanciful directions. Here are some of the most talked about ideas, in descending order of likelihood that they will actually end up in front of Congress:

  • A renewal of the now-expired assault weapons ban
  • Closing the loophole that allows people to buy guns at gun shows without a background check
  • Banning high-capacity ammunition clips
  • A national database of people (convicted felons; the mentally ill) who are prohibited from buying guns
  • Nationwide registration of every hand gun and/or a database for tracking the sale of all weapons

There are plenty of other ideas being tossed about, some of which require only an executive order and not an act of Congress. Some state efforts are underway, as well. What remains most striking about this round of hand-wringing, however, is that the intensity of feeling continues to mount more than three weeks after the massacre. There has been plenty of time for the outrage to fade away or other distractions to pull people from the cause, yet there seems to be no letting up on the issue. From Mayor Michael Bloomberg's continued cajoling of the White House to the return of Gabby Giffords, the gun-control push is starting to look like a real movement that won't end without some sort of deliberate action being taken. When even a former four-star Army general like Stanley McChrystal says "serious action is necessary," you know something is afoot.

Of course, a more galvanized gun-control lobby also means a more determined NRA. Membership has reportedly soared since the December 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, and rumors of the new legislative proposals have stoked fears among gun owners that have persisted since President Obama's first election. The worst dreams of even the least paranoid gun advocates seem to be coming true. One need only look at the unhinged performance of talk radio host Alex Jones last night to see how agitated some gun-rights advocates can get. In the eyes of an already distrustful lobby, Newtown is merely a convenient excuse for liberals to do what they've always wanted—strip gun owners of their rights—and they are ready to fight harder than ever to prevent that. Yet, the Jones interview will only serve to convince those on the left that gun advocates are dangerously unstable and must be stood up to. And the cycle of outrage continues.

And then there is the big obstacle threatening to drag down the whole legislative initiative: the budget fight. Biden's commission will deliver its recommendations right around the time the president delivers his State of the Union Address at the tail end of January. But immediately after any proposals are outlined and introduced, we'll hit the debt ceiling — if not before — and all other concerns will take a back seat. "Clearly we will not be addressing that issue early, because spending and debt are going to dominate the first three months," Sen. Mitch McConnell said Sunday on Face the Nation. The longer the debt debate plays out, the less likely it is that any gun package makes it through Congress anytime soon. Plus, if the sequester happens, steep budget cuts will make it nearly impossible to pass any legislation that requires significant amounts of new spending. That's why some remain convinced that the prospects of a real gun-control effort are dim — or at least "muddled."

Still, polls have rarely been stronger in support of new, tighter restrictions, and the goodwill toward politicians who want to act has never been warmer. But a major bill may not be able to make it through a fractious legislature when even simple matters like paying the bills become turn into an all-out turf war.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.