Gun-Control Advocates Began 2013 With Plenty of Momentum. Is It Fading?

Neil Heslin, the father of a six-year-old boy who was slain in the Sandy Hook massacre testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) (National Journal)

For weeks, lawmakers have been consumed by debates over massive spending cuts and nomination fights. This is the last thing that gun-control advocates needed.

At the start of this year, pressure was building for stricter gun laws with the country still in shock over the tragic shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school. President Obama and gun-control advocates in Congress were ready to move quickly on legislation. Now, strong Republican opposition and a loss of momentum are putting the proposals at risk.

There is no singular, comprehensive gun-control bill before Congress. Worried that even one unpopular proposal could sink an entire legislative package, Democrats broke up the measure into different pieces.

Take the assault-rifle ban, a proposal authored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who successfully championed a measure in the 1990s that has since expired. In several of the recent gun tragedies in the United States, assault rifles or weapons with extended ammunition magazines were used — from Aurora to Newtown.

Feinstein's bill bans 2,000 specifically named firearms and high-capacity magazines, and the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to pass the legislation along party lines and send it to the Senate floor.

Still, the legislation's chances of passing are now slim, despite the impassioned pleas from lawmakers and people connected to gun violence. Feinstein invited some of those advocates to a Capitol Hill hearing on Wednesday where they gave emotional testimonies about the impact of gun violence on communities across the country.

"I am here to speak out for my son," a tearful Neil Heslin, the father of a Newtown victim, told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "It's not about taking the weapons away from the owners. Not hurting the sportsman, it's not hurting the gun owners."

Republicans argued that current laws should be enforced before lawmakers pass new measures and said that the proposed legislation would trample on the Second Amendment rights of gun owners.

"If we're going to expand background checks, we ought to be enforcing the laws on the book," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said. "Almost 80,000 fail a background check and 44 people are prosecuted. What kind of deterrent is that?"

This assertion, however, was challenged by the witnesses representing different elements of the law-enforcement community. Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn said that Graham was missing the point.

"How many cases have you made?" Graham asked.

"You know, it doesn't matter, it's a paper thing. I want to stop 76,000 people buying guns illegally," Flynn snapped back. "We don't chase paper, we chase armed criminals."

Republicans also argue that it does not make sense to ban assault rifles because they are involved in only a small number of homicide cases.

Although gun-control advocates are facing a tough battle, they drew encouragement from the special-election results in Illinois this week.

On Tuesday, former state Rep. Robin Kelly easily won the contest to replace disgraced Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. She got help from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who injected $2.2 million to promote her gun-control positions. Vice President Joe Biden touted the result as one that would send a message to the National Rifle Association and voters across the country.

But a gun-control win in a Chicago community ravaged by gun violence doesn't always translate beyond that area. To boost the pressure on lawmakers to actually pass these pieces of legislation, Democrats need to turn the focus from the drama of Washington to this issue where action seemed inevitable just a month ago.