As gun-safety forces in Congress push for new curbs on gun rights, and with the first round of votes soon to begin, they are haunted by nearly total failure over the past generation in legislative battles with the National Rifle Association.
The last time they prevailed over the NRA in a major federal policy fight was in 1994, when President Bill Clinton signed into law a ban on the sale and manufacture of high-capacity ammunition clips and certain models of assault weapons. This followed success a year earlier in gaining enactment of "the Brady bill," a measure requiring a five-day wait for handgun purchases and establishing a national database of criminals.
But over the past 20 years, the NRA and its congressional allies have dominated the legislative process when it comes to firearms, adding several of their measures to the U.S. code while turning back every bill or amendment viewed as a threat to gun rights and challenging judicial nominees seen as wobbly on the Second Amendment.
Between 1995 and 2011, Congress voted into law measures that:
- Stripped the District of Columbia government of most its gun controls.
- Awarded firearms manufacturers broad immunity against lawsuits.
- Authorized airline pilots to carry firearms in the cockpit.
- Allowed those in bankruptcy to keep possession of up to three firearms.
- Authorized private citizens to carry guns on Amtrak and in national parks.
- Permitted firearms sales over the Internet.
And in policy wins occurring without benefit of recorded votes and the accompanying public scrutiny, NRA-backed lawmakers in recent years have hemmed in the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco by steps such as limiting its budget, restricting its ability to gather records of gun sales and refusing to allow the Senate to confirm an AFT director.
This year, Congress -- or at least the Democratic-controlled Senate -- is taking another serious look at federal measures to reduce gun violence, acting in large part in response to the massacre in December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in which a gunman used a Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle, with 30-bullet magazines, to kill 20 young children and six teachers.
The Senate is expected this month to take up bills that would expand background checks to cover nearly all gun sales and crack down on straw purchasers who buy guns for criminals. Senators might also vote on whether to reinstate the ban on assault weapons and on limits on the size of magazines.
"Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress," President Obama told lawmakers in his State of the Union address in February. "If you want to vote 'no,' that's your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote. Because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun."
In response, the NRA said "when you listen to (Obama) talk about new gun laws, you may think he sounds reasonable. But what happens when you look at the details behind the president's policies?" The assault weapons ban, the NRA continued, "will not work without mandatory gun confiscation and universal background checks will not work without requiring national gun registration."
Senators such as Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, say they will lead a filibuster to keep the Senate from even starting debate on the package. In the GOP-controlled House, leaders have been non-committal on whether they would bring to the floor any bills sent over by the Senate.
Since passage of the assault-weapons ban in 1994, the House and Senate have conducted at least 48 substantive votes on gun issues, with lawmakers aligned with the NRA winning about 80 percent of the time. On those rare occasions when a pro-control measure passed one chamber or the other, it was eliminated later in the legislative process.
In the House
|U.S. House||Rick Larsen (D-2)||Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-3)||Doc Hastings (R-4)||Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-5)||Jim McDermott (D-7)||Dave Reichert (R-8)||Adam Smith (D-9)||Outcome|
|1. Federalize concealed carry laws||2011||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||No||Yes||Yes||Passed|
|2. Preserve states' rights||2011||No||No||No||No||Yes||No||Yes||Failed|
|3. Protect guns in bankruptcy||2010||Yes||Not in office||Yes||Yes||No||Yes||Yes||Passed|
|4. Allow guns in national parks||2009||No||Not in office||Yes||Yes||No||Yes||Yes||Passed|
|5. Repeal D.C. gun laws||2008||No||Not in office||Yes||Yes||No||Yes||No||Passed|
|6. Prohibit confiscation in disaster zones||2006||Yes||Not in office||Yes||Yes||No||Yes||Yes||Passed|
|7. Grant immunity to gun makers||2005||Yes||Not in office||Yes||Yes||No||Not in office||No||Passed|
|8. Repeal D.C. gun laws||2004||No||Not in office||Yes||Not in office||No||Not in office||No||Passed|
1. Concealed-carry laws: The House on Nov. 16, 2011, voted 272-154 to make it easier for individuals to carry concealed, loaded handguns while traveling in other states. Overriding states' rights, the bill (HR 822) sought to impose a national standard on the existing patchwork of state laws on concealed handguns. A yes vote was to allow the concealed-carry law of one's home state to pre-empt any stricter laws in other states.
2. States' rights vs. gun rights: The House on Nov. 16, 2011, refused 140-283 to preserve the reciprocity agreements by which 40 states allow visitors from another state to carry concealed guns if they meet the requirements of the host state. A yes vote was to preserve states' rights that would be overridden by HR 822 (item 1), a bill that would federalize the states' concealed-carry laws into a uniform national standard.
3. Guns in bankruptcy: The House on July 28, 2010, voted 307-113 to allow individuals filing for bankruptcy to exempt up to three firearms with an aggregate value of $1,500 or less from creditors' claims. The exemption would apply to pistols, rifles and shotguns. A yes vote was to pass HR 5827.
4. Gun rights in national parks: Voting 279-147, the House on May 20, 2009, added language to HR 627 ensuring the right to carry loaded guns in national parks and the National Wildlife Refuge System if the individual is otherwise qualified to carry weapons. This was in response to a federal judge's recent ruling against the carriage of loaded weapons in federal parks and refuges. A yes vote backed the gun-rights amendment.
5. Repeal of D.C. gun laws: Voting 266-152, the House on Sept. 17, 2008, sent the Senate a bill (HR 6842) removing most restrictions on gun possession in the District of Columbia. This was in response to a Supreme Court decision three months earlier (District of Columbia v. Heller) that struck down the city's ban on handgun ownership by residents other than law enforcement officers. This bill also voided D.C.'s requirement that rifles, shotguns and other firearms be stored unloaded and locked or encased.
The bill added gun rights beyond those required by the court ruling, in part by removing restrictions on the ownership of military-style firearms such as .50 caliber sniper rifles and semi-automatic assault weapons; barring any D.C. law that would "unduly burden" gun ownership; permitting D.C. residents to cross state lines to buy firearms; and repealing the city's registration requirement for firearms.
A yes vote was to pass the bill.
6. Guns in disaster zones: Voting 322-99, the House on July 25, 2006, sent to conference with the Senate a bill (HR 5013) to prohibit police, the National Guard and other public-safety personnel from seizing legal firearms in officially declared disaster zones, such as New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. A yes vote was to pass the bill.
7. Gun manufacturer immunity: Members on Oct. 20, 2005, voted 283-144 to send President Bush a bill (S 397) giving manufacturers, dealers, distributors and importers of firearms broad immunity from lawsuits based on the gun being misused by a criminal or some other third party. The bill, which applied to pending as well as future suits in federal and state courts, did not prohibit suits based on defects in the design or manufacture of the firearm. A yes vote was to pass the bill.
8. Repeal of D.C. gun laws: Voting 250-171, the House on Sept. 29, 2004, sent the Senate a bill (HR 3193) to repeal the District of Columbia law that outlawed military-style assault weapons as well the D.C. ban on the private possession of handguns except by businesses. The bill also sought to end mandatory gun registration in D.C., repeal the city's ban on armor-piercing ammunition and void its requirement that firearms in D.C. homes must be kept unloaded and locked or disassembled. A yes vote was to pass the bill.
In the Senate
|U.S. Senate||Maria Cantwell (D)||Patty Murray (D)||Outcome|
|9. Confirm Halligan as appeals judge||2013||Yes||Yes||Not confirmed|
|10. Allow searches of gun records||2011||Yes||Yes||Tabled|
|11. Federalize concealed-carry laws||2009||No||No||Failed|
|12. Allow guns in national parks||2009||No||No||Passed|
|13. Repeal D.C. gun laws||2009||No||No||Passed|
|14. Prohibit confiscation in disaster zones||2006||Yes||Yes||Passed|
|15. Grant Immunity to gun makers||2005||No||No||Passed|
|16. Renew ban on assault weapons||2004||Yes||Yes||Passed|
|17. Close gun-show loophole||2004||Yes||Yes||Passed|
|18. Prohibit armor-piercing bullets||2004||Yes||Yes||Failed|
9. Caitlin Halligan nomination: The Senate on March 6, 2013, failed 51-41 to reach 60 votes for ending a Republican filibuster against the nomination of Caitlin J. Halligan to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Halligan, 45, is general counsel for the New York County District Attorney's Office in Manhattan. A yes vote backed Halligan over National Rifle Association criticism of her views on gun manufacturers' legal liability. This was the second Senate vote in 15 months to block her nomination. She has since withdrawn her name from consideration. A yes vote was to confirm Halligan.
10. Gun records in property searches: Voting 85-10, the Senate on May 26, 2011, tabled (killed) an amendment to exempt firearms records from property searches conducted under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. The vote occurred during debate on a bill (S 990) to extend certain sections of the act until June 2015. A yes vote was to subject firearms records to USA Patriot Act searches.
11. Concealed-carry laws: Voting 58-39, the Senate on July 22, 2009, failed to reach 60 votes needed to advance an amendment making it easier for individuals to carry concealed, loaded handguns while traveling in other states. The measure sought to impose what amounted to a national standard on the existing patchwork of state laws on concealed handguns. It did so by enabling the concealed-carry law of the individual's home state to pre-empt any stricter laws he or she encounters in other states. A yes vote backed the gun-rights amendment.
12. Gun rights in national parks: The Senate on May 12, 2009, voted 67-29 to affirm Bush administration regulations ensuring the right to bear loaded guns in national parks and the National Wildlife Refuge System. The amendment to HR 627 sought to blunt a federal judge's recent ruling to block those regulations. A yes vote backed the gun-rights amendment.
13. Repeal of D.C. gun laws: The Senate on Feb. 26, 2009, voted 62-36 to deny the District of Columbia government authority to enact restrictive gun laws. In part, this amendment to S 160 sought to repeal laws such as D.C.'s prohibition of gun ownership by persons voluntarily committed to mental institutions and the city's bans on armor-piercing sniper rifles and military-style, semi-automatic assault weapons. The amendment also sought to repeal the city's ban on individuals younger than 21 possessing firearms as well as a federal law to bar gun trafficking across state lines. A yes vote was to void several D.C. gun laws.
14. Guns in disaster zones: Voting 84-16, the Senate on July 13, 2006, passed an amendment to bar law enforcement officials and other first responders from seizing citizens' firearms in officially declared disaster zones such as New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. A yes vote was to add the amendment to the fiscal 2007 budget (HR 5441) for the Department of Homeland Security.
15. Gun manufacturer immunity: The Senate on July 29, 2005, passed 65-31 a bill (S 397) giving firearms manufacturers, dealers, distributors and importers immunity from being sued by victims of gun violence committed by a third party unless it is shown they have violated a criminal law. The bill, which applied to pending as well as future suits in federal and state courts, did not prohibit suits based on defects in the design or manufacture of the firearm. A yes vote was to pass the bill.
16. Assault-weapons ban: Voting 52-47, the Senate on March 2, 2004, extended for 10 years a 1994 law that outlawed the future manufacture, sale and possession of 19 specific semi-automatic assault weapons and ammunition clips holding more than 10 rounds. This was Congress's only vote on whether to extend the 1994 assault-weapons ban. The vote added renewal of the ban to a bill (S 1805) giving the gun industry immunity from lawsuits. This caused defeat of the underlying bill. A yes vote was to extend the 1994 assault-weapons ban.
17. Loophole on background checks: Senators on March 2, 2004, voted 53-46 to require background checks of those buying firearms from unlicensed dealers at gun shows. Such checks were already required to be made by federally licensed dealers at gun shows. At the time of this vote, hundreds of thousands of firearms sales without checks were being made annually at gun shows. This broadening of background checks was added to S 1805 (item 16), but died when the Senate defeated that bill. A yes vote was to close the gun-show loophole.
18. Armor-piercing bullets: Senators on March 2, 2004, refused 34-63 to broaden the federal ban on the sale of armor-piercing bullets. Existing law already banned many such bullets for use in handguns. This amendment sought to extend the ban to bullets for assault weapons and most other rifles not commonly used for hunting. A yes vote backed the gun-safety amendment during debate on S 1805 (item 16).
Most recent Need to Know posts
Our new comment system is not supported in IE 7. Please upgrade your browser here.