Gun-Control Groups Take Pragmatic Approach, Focus on Background Checks

Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly returned to the site of a shooting that left her critically wounded to urge key senators to support expanded background checks for gun purchases (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) (National Journal)

Facing strong resistance to an assault-weapons ban, advocates for stricter gun laws are increasingly focusing on a push for universal background checks that stands a greater chance of passage.

Background checks are just one of four proposals the Senate Judiciary Committee debated on Thursday as it considered legislation to crack down on gun trafficking and improve school safety. Even though opponents of the ban on military-style assault weapons tried to bog the legislation down with amendments, it is expected to advance to the Senate floor. But even advocates of the measure believe its chances of passage are slim.

Following the massacre of 20 elementary-school students in Newtown, Conn., President Obama and gun-control groups called on Congress to pass several measures to curb gun violence, including a renewal of the assault-rifle ban. Since then, the National Rifle Association and several Republican lawmakers have criticized the assault-rifle measure, saying the law is unfair to law-abiding gun owners who use such weapons for hunting or self-defense. The measure, they also argue, might not pass constitutional muster in the courts.

Though they are not giving up on the measure for the long term, gun-control advocates are shifting their focus.

"We're not going to fix everything that needs fixing in the next six months," said Mark Glaze, the director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a gun-control group founded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. "But every day that passes, another 33 Americans are murdered with a gun. Members of Congress are going to be hearing about those murders every day that they fail to take action in a way that was not the case before Newtown."

Even if the Senate passed the assault-rifle ban, it would face an even tougher fight in the House. Republican lawmakers say it would infringe on Americans' Second Amendment rights. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, described it on Thursday as arbitrary, saying it would ban weapons based on how they look, "not on the damage they do." Background checks have not provoked the same level of opposition, though the National Rifle Association opposes them, warning that the checks could lead to the creation of a national registry of gun owners.

Still, recent polling and movement even from gun manufacturers suggest a willingness to address universal background checks.

Groups like Americans for Responsible Solutions, a gun-control group founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot during a congressional event two years ago, and her husband, Mark Kelly, are running television ads to persuade certain members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to support universal background checks. Grassley and Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona are among the senators they are aiming to win over.

"Be bold. Be courageous. Please support background checks," Giffords said on Wednesday at the site of her assassination attempt in Tucson, Ariz.

This effort, however, might have hit a snag on Tuesday when Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., gave up on writing bipartisan legislation on background checks with Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Mark Kirk of Illinois. The holdup centered on differences over whether private gun sales should be recorded.

Advocates, including Ladd Everitt, the director of communications for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, have pointed to the bipartisan support of gun-trafficking and universal-background-check legislation. Though gun-control advocates have shifted their efforts toward these proposals, the groups are not giving up on the assault-weapons ban entirely. Recognizing it is a "tougher lift," Everett said he is trying to take the long view and will continue to fight to get it passed.

"The Republicans have decided to draw their battle lines with assault weapons and high-capacity magazines," Everitt said. "But I wouldn't say that people are throwing out the assault-weapons ban.... I don't in any way view this as the end game. This is the beginning for us."

This issue may also play out in the 2014 midterms, as both sides of the argument will seek to emphasize it in the campaign. Already, Bloomberg spent millions in an Illinois congressional race last week to elect a pro-gun-control candidate. "There will be another mass shooting," Mayors Against Illegal Guns' Glaze said. "And when it happens, members of Congress who said, "˜No,' are going to face some very tough questions."