Several days after the Newtown, Conn. shootings, two story lines have emerged in Washington when it comes a legislative response. One is something of a shock to observers who have watched tragedies like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary come and go with little in the way of action on Capitol Hill. The other should come as no surprise to anyone who’s paid even a modicum of attention to Congress since 2010.
In short: there appears to be real momentum for new gun control legislation, specifically a new ban on assault weapons in the Senate and at the White House. But then there’s the House GOP.
It’s still very early in the post-Newtown political fallout to know exactly what will happen. But one thing seems clear: gun control advocates really think they’ve got the public on their side this time, and they really think that means the public will bring the politicians along with them.
“This is a seminal moment. It’s completely new,” Matt Bennett, a former top official at the now-defunct gun control group Americans for Gun Safety told The Atlantic. “Anyone who tells you the old truths of gun politics hold here may be wrong.”
Bennett has plenty of polling and statements from politicians to back up his view. Public opinion surveys taken in the immediate wake of the shooting have shown support for further limiting the type and capacity of guns Americans are able to purchase.
On the Hill, National Rifle Association-backed Democrats in both the House and Senate have started talking openly about gun control, risking the ire of the group that not too long ago scared the hell out of just about everyone who put his or her name on a ballot.
Those lawmakers appear to be coalescing around the idea of some kind of assault weapons ban, something Congress has done before. The pro-gun rights Democrats have called for any debate to include talk about “the culture” (including violent video games, movies and TV shows) as well as mental health reforms. It’s unlikely either of those conversations will be a deal breaker for gun control advocates in Congress. NRA-backed Democrats have also expressed interest in legislation that would limit ammo capacity, something that was pushed after the Tucson, Ariz. shooting that wounded then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) in 2011.
That legislative push stalled and eventually burned out thanks to opposition from the gun lobby and conservatives. (The NRA used fear of the legislation’s return to rally supporters in August.)
The excitement among gun control activists and lawmakers this time is perceptibly different than it was after Tucson, as was President Obama strong call for action post-Newtown. So when the new Congress arrives in January and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduces her promised assault weapons ban, expect some Senate momentum.
To be sure, there are plenty of Republicans in the Senate who are not on board with the growing momentum. Sens. Linsdey Graham (R-SC) and Susan Collins (R-ME) suggested Tuesday they’d be open to legislation, but others have rejected it. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) told reporters Monday that gun laws “are not going to change in the near future.”
Unless something changes — and it might, given the tenor of things after Newtown — the House could be the place where the gun control momentum comes to a grinding halt. Conservatives in the House majority Republican caucus are already telling gun control advocates to hold their horses.
Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R-VA), incoming chair of the House Judiciary Committee — which gives him “jurisdiction over firearms regulations,” according to Roll Call — told the publication he’s not moving from his opposition to new gun regulations.
“We’re going to take a look at what happened there and what can be done to help avoid it in the future,” Goodlatte said, “but gun control is not going to be something that I would support.”
The NRA plans to weigh into the situation for the first time Friday, potentially giving backup to the Goodlatte school of thought.
Other House Republican leaders are more equivocal when it comes to gun control than he is, however.
“If the president has specific ideas in mind, we will listen,” a spokesperson for Speaker John Boehner told Roll Call. “But right now our focus should be on the victims, their families and their friends.”
It’s not yet clear if the majority of the House GOP will sound more like Goodlatte or more like Boehner if and when actual gun control legislation comes up. Openness to the discussion of gun control would be a shift. Blanket rejection of it would not.
The potential for new gun laws following the Newtown shooting probably depends on that difference.