High-capacity magazines are either the scourge of the streets or the only thing standing between a mother and the home invaders who want to kill her children. Assault weapons are either machines designed for killing or a woman’s best friend. Universal background checks are either the clearest path to reducing gun violence or a feel-good measure that does little but punish the law abiding by making gun ownership more inconvenient.
After hours of Senate Judiciary Committee testimony on gun violence Wednesday, the divides that have made it impossible for new gun regulations to pass for years were fully on display. What that means for the future of gun legislation following the Newtown, Conn., school shooting is anyone’s guess.
The hearing was mixed with emotion and histrionics, a blend befitting a debate that drew upon some of America’s saddest stories and most paranoid fears.
The session opened with moving testimony from former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) who carefully read a direct appeal for Congress to act. Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, have founded a super PAC aimed at creating an atmosphere conducive to new gun control legislation. Kelly testified at the hearing after Giffords was led out.
While every senator present spoke about how they were moved by the sight of Giffords, who now looks physically similar to how she appeared before being shot in the head at a constituent meeting in 2011, those broadly opposed to new gun regulations did not budge on the issue.
Republicans and allies from the gun rights community, including Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association, worried that Democrats and gun control advocates were out to take their constitutionally-protected firearms. Democrats tried to assure them this was not the case, backed up by Kelly and Baltimore County, Md. Police Chief James Johnson, chair of a national coalition of law enforcement leaders pushing for new gun regulations.
As they have since Newtown, the gun control folks and their Democratic allies pushed universal background checks. LaPierre rejected the idea of expanding background checks, calling it ineffective because criminals would likely not abide by the law.
The clearest indication of the split that remains between gun control advocates and some in the gun rights community came when LaPierre and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) went back and forth over LaPierre’s contention that Americans need firearms in case the country falls into chaos. Other key disagreements came when Independent Women’s Forum activist Gayle Trotter argued that assault weapons were a woman’s best tool against attacks on her family.
The Republican Senators at the hearing for the most part stuck to their contention that limits on weapons don’t work and therefore new gun laws for the most part aren’t necessary.
So the result of the testimony was yet another reminder that Democrats and Republicans are generally very far apart on the issue of guns. While that would generally suggest little chance of legislative action on things like background checks in the coming weeks, Republicans and Democrats outside the hearing room on Capitol Hill this week are sounding a more bipartisan note. On background checks for example, moderate Democrats and some Republicans have shown interest in expanding the types of firearms transactions subject to checks.
Unfortunately for those hoping new gun laws will pass in the near future, little of that bipartisanship was on display in the hearing room.