Tucson Tragedy: Is Gun Control a Dead Issue?

You might think attacks like the one in Tucson would lead to tougher gun restrictions. But you'd be dead wrong

  • Illustration by Thomas Miller for TIME; Gun: Getty Images

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    Modern gun politics can be traced to a brief flurry of federal restrictions set early in Bill Clinton's presidency. In 1993, Congress passed the Brady Bill, requiring licensed gun dealers to perform background checks to keep guns away from would-be buyers with felony records or histories of dangerous mental illness. And in 1994, Clinton's crime bill included a 10-year ban on many assault weapons and huge magazines, which seem to be designed more for gangbangers than sportsmen. But the Republican electoral sweep that November persuaded many Democrats that anti-gun stances were politically toxic in many swing districts and reflected a kind of elitist, wine-rack, city-slicker mentality that condescended to working-class, beer-track rural voters. It suggested an ignorance of values shared by millions of Americans who like guns for reasons that have nothing to do with economic insecurity and resent gun restrictions for reasons that have nothing to do with paranoia.

    On the Republican side, George W. Bush vowed to extend the assault-weapons ban in 2000 when he was running as a "compassionate conservative" and was keen to tailor his appeal to suburban moms. But he allowed the ban to expire in 2004 after shifting his focus to the GOP base. When Democrats took back Congress in 2006 — thanks in part to a new wave of pro-gun candidates like Giffords, who was recruited by a former Clinton aide turned Illinois Congressman named Rahm Emanuel — the ban did not return. Obama has made no effort to revive it, even though he talked about gun restrictions during the campaign; Attorney General Eric Holder, who called for renewing the ban early in 2009, swiftly walked it back, and the Administration's rhetoric since has echoed NRA talking points about enforcing gun laws already on the books.

    The NRA remains incredibly influential, but it isn't omnipotent. In 2008, it spent millions bashing Obama in several states, almost all of which he won anyway. In 2010, 27 NRA-endorsed Democrats lost, while all but two Democrats who had cosponsored gun-control legislation were re-elected. The NRA has been uncharacteristically muted since the massacre, merely offering condolences to the victims. And polling data suggest that Americans support at least some gun restrictions — requiring background checks for all gun sales, requiring a waiting period and limiting sales of assault weapons. Helmke hopes the attack on one of their own will finally galvanize members of Congress into action, if for nothing else than to reinstate the ban on magazines with over 10 rounds. If that law had been in place Jan. 8, Loughner might have gotten off 20 fewer shots.

    Still, it's never wise to bet against the NRA, especially now that Republicans control the House. The Second Amendment is pretty clear about the right to bear arms, although scholars argue about that "well-regulated militia" clause, and the Supreme Court has invalidated blanket handgun bans. Meanwhile, the NRA has done a brilliant job persuading some gun owners and many politicians that even modest restrictions represent ominous steps toward tyranny. But the court has suggested that less draconian gun regulations are perfectly constitutional, and some politicians have searched for middle ground on an issue dominated by macho hands-off-my-gun posturing and maudlin think-of-the-children appeals.

    One of those politicians is now recovering from head trauma at Tucson's University Medical Center. It has become well known that Giffords owns guns and that she filed a friend-of-the-court brief opposing a handgun ban in Washington. It is less well known that as a state legislator, she favored restrictions on guns in Arizona. Her NRA grade was a D. "She told me she believed in the Second Amendment," Helmke says, "but she also believed in being reasonable. Maybe now that it's personal, Congress will as well."

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