Some Unlikely Democrats Join in Push for New Gun Laws
Congressional Democrats showed signs on Monday of a more aggressive push on gun control in the wake of the Newtown killings, while Republicans and gun rights advocates remained largely silent on policy matters. Joe Manchin III, the pro-gun-rights West Virginia senator who drew attention in 2010 after running a commercial that showed him firing a rifle at an environmental bill, said that “everything should be on the table” as gun control is debated in the coming weeks and months.
Representative John Yarmuth, a moderate Democrat from Kentucky, said he finally felt compelled to speak out on an issue that has been untouchable for many elected officials.
“I have been largely silent on the issue of gun violence over the past six years, and I am now as sorry for that as I am for what happened to the families who lost so much in this most recent, but sadly not isolated, tragedy,” Mr. Yarmuth said in a statement. “The National Rifle Association has spent untold millions of dollars instilling fear in our citizens and our politicians.”
He added, “I believe it is more rational to fear guns far more than the illusory political power of the N.R.A.”
And in a Twitter message sent out before a television appearance, Senator Mark Warner of Virginia called the episode a “game changer.”
The National Rifle Association has been largely silent since the shootings on Friday morning. On Monday, the home page of its Web site contained a blog post from Nov. 27, titled “More Guns, Less Crime in Virginia,” and the association’s Twitter account, which is normally active, has not sent a message since Friday.
It remains unclear whether any new legislation is likely to pass, especially given that Congress remains focused on budget matters for the time being. President Obama said at a memorial service that he planned to take executive action to reduce shootings, although he has not yet specified what that action might be.
Remarks on Monday from the two leaders of the Senate, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, and Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, underscored how difficult it will be to challenge the status quo. Both men, though far apart ideologically on most political issues, come from states where gun rights are especially cherished. And both made rather muted remarks on Monday.
Speaking from the floor of the Senate, Mr. Reid said the country was failing to keep people safe, though he did not go as far as his colleagues in calling for new laws. “As President Obama said last night, no one law can erase evil. No policy can prevent a determined madman from committing a senseless act of violence,” he said. “But we need to accept the reality that we are not doing enough to protect our citizens.”
Mr. McConnell entirely sidestepped the question of gun control, limiting his statement only to expressions of sadness and sympathy. “So we stand with the people of Newtown today and in the days ahead,” he said. “We can do nothing to lessen their anguish, but we can let them know that we mourn with them, that we share a tiny part of their burden in our own hearts.”
But the tone of the political debate does seem to have shifted, at least temporarily, after the shootings, which left 27 people dead, including 20 children.
Mr. Manchin, a Democrat and an avid hunter with an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, indicated that he supported re-evaluating laws that permit people to have clips that hold dozens of rounds of ammunition and to own assault rifles.
“I don’t know anybody in the sporting or hunting arena that goes out with an assault rifle,” Mr. Manchin said, speaking on the MSNBC program “Morning Joe.”
“I don’t know anybody who needs 30 rounds in a clip to go hunting. I mean, these are things that need to be talked about,” he added.
While Mr. Manchin stopped short of saying what, if any, changes to gun laws he would support, his words amounted to one of the strongest signals yet that in the aftermath of the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., longtime gun rights supporters are taking a more measured approach to Second Amendment issues.
Gun control has been something of a third rail for many lawmakers, including Mr. Obama, who critics say has not pushed for any meaningful reforms. Any effort to rewrite gun laws in Congress would certainly be a complicated and difficult task.
But, as Mr. Manchin said on Monday, the Newtown shooting has caused many like him to pause and rethink the issue.
“Millions and millions of people are proud gun owners, and they do it responsibly,” he said. “Seeing the massacre of so many innocent children, it’s changed – it’s changed America. We’ve never seen this happen.”
The National Rifle Association’s political fund has praised Mr. Manchin for taking various steps to protect gun owners, like signing a law prohibiting the confiscating of guns during a state of emergency while he was governor of West Virginia.
In his comments on Monday, Mr. Manchin was careful to note that the dialogue would have to take place in a way that reassured the N.R.A. and others that their right to bear arms was not in jeopardy. He said he would be approaching the N.R.A. to discuss the issue soon.
“I’ll go over and sit down with them and say, ‘How can we take the dialogue to a different level?’” he said. “How can we sit down and make sure that we’re moving and not be afraid that someone’s going to attack our freedoms and our rights?”
Still, other prominent Democrats went further, calling outright for tougher laws.
Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, who is the chairman of a subcommittee on the Constitution and civil rights, said that he would hold hearings on Second Amendment rights. And Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who was with the San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978 as he lay dying from an assassin’s bullet, said she would introduce legislation that would ban the sale and possession of large clips of ammunition and strips that hold more than 10 bullets.
Mr. Durbin wrote an article published by The Chicago Tribune on Monday in which he argued for new limits on weapons ownership.
“What will it take?” Mr. Durbin wrote, listing one by one the mass shootings that have occurred in the United States over the past few years. “What it will take is for the majority of Americans, and the majority of thoughtful gun owners and hunters, to agree that there must be reasonable limits on gun ownership and weapons.”
With passions running high after the Newtown massacre, Democrats said they anticipated a call from gun rights advocates to resist emotional calls to rewrite gun laws. And advocates for changes are certain to face a tough battle as they run up against one of Washington’s most powerful and well-financed lobbies.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York held a news conference on Monday with dozens of people who had lost loved ones to gun violence, at which he unveiled a video campaign and Web site demanding that Mr. Obama and Congress do something about guns. He gave a very specific list of demands, both for legislation and executive action, and repeatedly called out Mr. Obama for doing too little on the issue.
Top New York Democrats have also been vocal the need for tougher federal regulation of firearms. In Albany, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said he would make several gun policy proposals in his state of the state address next month. The governor, who was a strong advocate for gun control as secretary of housing and urban development in the Clinton administration, said that the state’s assault weapons ban has multiple loopholes that need to be addressed, but that action really needs to happen at the federal level.
Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York called for “a new paradigm” in the gun control debate and cautioned that proponents of tighter regulation needed to be mindful of the concerns of responsible gun owners as they pursued their cause, which has so often fallen short.
“First, those of us who are pro-gun-control have to admit that there is a Second Amendment right to bear arms,” he said. And the other side, he added, was being counterproductive by claiming “the left wants to take that hunting rifle your Uncle Tommy gave you when you were 15.”
Mr. Schumer was speaking Sunday on “Face the Nation” on CBS. Its host, Bob Schieffer, noted that he had invited Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on the program to respond, but that all of them had declined.
Politicians, lobbyists and policy experts continued on Monday to discuss the prospect of new limitations on firearms, with stronger support and even some indications of softening opposition to gun control in the aftermath of the mass killing.
Joe Scarborough, the host of “Morning Joe” and a former Republican congressman from Florida who highlighted his support of gun rights, also made comments on the program calling for action from Washington on several fronts.
“The violence we see spreading from shopping malls in Oregon, to movie theaters in Colorado, to college campuses in Virginia, to elementary schools in Connecticut, is being spawned by the toxic view of a violent popular culture, a growing mental health crisis and the proliferation of combat-style weapons,” Mr. Scarborough said.
Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut who is about to leave Congress, was among those calling for restrictions on assault weapons, a position favored by many Democrats. He is also calling for a commission to look broadly at the problem of gun violence and its causes.
Mr. Lieberman repeated his views that assault weapons “were weapons created by the U.S. military for use in war.”
“When it comes to mental health, this is complicated,” he continued. “We’ve got to find a way to create a society in which those closest to people in trouble, mentally, acknowledge that” and help them secure assistance.
As for violence in the entertainment and video game industry, which Mr. Lieberman has also said may contribute to a culture of violence, he said, “I think we really do have to reopen the conversation and go back and ask ourselves, ‘Is there more we can do?’”
John H. Cushman Jr. contributed reporting from Washington. Thomas Kaplan and Danny Hakim contributed reporting from Albany. Michael M. Grynbaum contributed reporting from New York.
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