Politics, race cloud gun control debate

President Barack Obama stands with Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday Dec. 19 in the briefing room of the White House. Obama has tasked Biden, a longtime gun control advocate, with spearheading a new task force on gun control. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Something is different about the gun control debate since the tragedy at Sandy Hook. Raw emotion pervades the national consciousness, while political and policy debates are shifting dramatically in ways unseen since other mass shootings in places like Columbine, Virginia Tech and Aurora. Many long-time observers in Washington are feeling the political earth rumble beneath their feet as a rejuvenated conversation emerges.

“Whether you lived in Connecticut or California, had children or not, the horrific event pulled you out of your small gripes and daily tasks to confront unspeakable tragedy and unanswerable questions,” observes Sally Steenland, at the Center for American Progress’ Faith and Progressive Policy Institute.

But will that translate into something radical on the legislative horizon?

The current 112th Congress is anxious to wrap up testy fiscal cliff negotiations that could be pushed off into next year. Members presently stuck in D.C. for the “lame duck” session are eager to return home for the holidays, budget deal or no budget deal. Gun control is the last thing politicians want to stomach at the moment.

“[I]f you believe the current national mood will be the same in the coming weeks, you’ve got another thing coming,” griped a cynical Dana Milbank in The Washington Post.

Hiram College political scientist Dr. Jason Johnson is also doubtful. “There’s no legislation that can be offered that would have actually worked [to prevent the Newtown shooting],” argues Johnson. “If you think about it, current gun laws, in a very technical sense, actually worked despite the tragedy - since the shooter didn’t legally acquire those guns.”

President Obama appeared determined to buck Washington protocol on the issue when announcing a hastily convened task force last week. “The fact that this problem is complex can no longer be an excuse for doing nothing,” said a sullen Obama during a press conference. The president promised it would not be another “Washington commission.”

The task force tactic, however, seemed carefully calibrated not to present specific proposals – just yet. In a move reminiscent of the health care reform battles, the job of actual bill drafting is left to lawmakers. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the author of the expired 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, wasted no time introducing a new ban hyped as having teeth, despite the hold till next year’s Congress.

“On the first day of the new Congress, I intend to introduce a bill stopping the sale, transfer, importation and manufacturing of assault weapons as well as large ammunition magazines, strips and drums that hold more than 10 rounds,” Feinstein said.

However, experts warn against any premature enthusiasm for a breakthrough on gun control. The National Rifle Association (NRA), under intense pressure, deftly played its hand in the week following Newtown. “The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again,” said the organization several days following the shooting.

NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre held a press conference on Friday calling on Congress to immediately “appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every school in this nation.” NRA officials were backing that up with an ambitious program headed by former Congressman and Drug Enforcement Administration head Asa Hutchinson, who announced the organization would collaborate with local school districts to identify “retired [and] volunteer” law enforcement professionals willing to commit time to implementing a “protection plan.”  

Experts who’ve watched NRA activities over the years know the organization has been extremely adept at protecting its legislative agenda. It dropped more than $24 million on the 2012 election cycle. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, 62 candidates received campaign contributions from the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, with 11 from that batch receiving $100,000. It spent $3.2 million opposing President Obama and $885,000 in support of Mitt Romney. The Center recently discovered a $600,000 one-time donation to the Institute from Crossroads GPS, the controversial Super PAC founded and headed by Karl Rove.

If policy fights over gun control next year boil down to influence and money on Capitol Hill, then gun control advocates such as the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence will be on the losing side. During the 2012 elections, the Center barely managed contributing $5,000 to candidates.

Still, outgoing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is on a public offensive to change that equation. Observers watch closely to see how much Bloomberg will spend from his personal fortune: checks were already cut for $10-15 million in a Bloomberg-funded Super PAC backing state, local and federal candidates this past election cycle.

In the meantime, as lawmakers prepare to joust over gun control, the specter of race is adding a new, and some say unwelcome twist to the conversation.

How comprehensive gun control is fashioned will depend largely on longstanding tensions between urban, rural and suburban legislators. Urban legislators, such as those in the Congressional Black Caucus, who represent large city districts, mourn for the Newtown victims, yet privately shake their heads that mainstream media pays little attention to the steady, almost daily reports of Black children who die from gun violence. Black legislators are fairly mum on the topic, some declining to comment by deadline out of respect for the Connecticut families grieving. But, the dialogue is taking place, as the Black political class hopes any movement on gun control can help stem gun violence in inner cities.

“The murder of 20 children and six adults in the quiet and normally safe enclave of Newtown … is forcing a conversation about gun control that the shooting of 26 residents in one night in Chicago this summer - resulting in the deaths of two teens and the injury of 24 others - could not,” wrote commentator Keli Goff recently in The Root, gently pointing to a rather charged discussion that ongoing violence in minority communities get very little coverage. “[H]istorically our country has only addressed the issue of gun violence when it touches the lives of those with whom our leaders are most likely to identify.”

Homicides are the 15th leading cause of death in the United States, according to the United Nations. More than 70 percent of those homicides are connected to gun violence. In predominantly Black urban areas such as Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Washington, D.C., murder rates are higher for residents than for civilians and U.S. troops killed by war in Afghanistan. African American children, by far, are disproportionately injured or killed by gun violence, particularly in major urban centers.

“[There is] a lot of outrage on Twitter and Facebook as a result of the shooting in Newtown,” notes Pamela Kirkland, host of Politics Powered by Twitter on SiriusXM satellite radio. “Especially, a lot of complaints about urban gun violence day-after-day in places like Chicago and Detroit that gets ignored. I think you’re going to start to see social media having a bigger impact on which stories end up on the big broadcast networks.”

Catalina Byrd, a former Baltimore mayoral candidate and host of OnPoint on WPB Radio, angrily dismisses the racial angle to the gun control debate. Calling it “inappropriate,” Byrd finds that aspect of the conversation places greater value on one group of children over another.

“The racial dimensions are an inappropriate comparison of two epidemics - urban violence is committed with illegal weapons while the mass shootings like Sandy Hook are done with legally purchased weapons,” Byrd contends. “The assertion that both the media and lawmakers are only reacting in this way because a majority of these slain children were white is insensitive, and an exaggeration. The ages of the children, as well as the volume, is what has touched this nation.” 

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