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How to pass gun control

In the three and a half weeks since Newtown, Conn. put gun violence back on the front-burner, gun-control advocates have seized the initiative in Washington.
(Photo by Michael Reynolds/EPA)

In the three and a half weeks since Newtown, Conn. put gun violence back on the front-burner, gun-control advocates have seized the initiative in Washington. They’ve introduced no less than 8 different gun-control bills since last week alone. President Obama last month tapped Vice President Joe Biden to lead a commission on gun violence, and days later House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi picked Rep. Mike Thompson to lead a separate task force on the issue. Thompson last week announced the appointment of 12 vice-chairs.

But beneath the flurry of appointments and the confident talk, supporters of stricter gun laws acknowledge that getting anything meaningful through Congress—and in particular the Republican-controlled House—will be a major challenge. For all the signs of a shift in attitude since Newtown, few Republicans, and only a handful of pro-gun NRA Democrats, have said they’re reconsidering their opposition to gun control. And the NRA remains as defiant as ever: A former president of the group on Wednesday compared gun control laws to Jim Crow.

“There are some very important, powerful vested interests, and they’re gonna try and prevent any type of change,” Thompson, a California Democrat, acknowledged in an interview with

Still, gun-control advocates are beginning to strategize about how to overcome those interests—often looking to successful gun-control efforts from the past as a guide. There’s no shortage of measures that supporters say could help reduce gun violence, which currently claims 32 American lives a day. Among them: a ban on assault weapons, including high-capacity magazines; requiring background checks at gun shows; and making more effective the database of those who are barred from buying guns.

“The balance has tipped,” Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., said on msnbc’s PoliticsNation Thursday, hours after introducing a bill to ban the kind of high-capacity magazines used in Newtown and other recent mass shootings. “People now realize, we need to do something.”

One key to attracting support from at least some Republicans and NRA-backed Democrats, gun-control supporters say, will be striking while the iron is hot, and while memories of Newtown remain fresh. Thompson said he plans to introduce legislation by the beginning of February. Biden may be looking at an even faster schedule: Boston mayor Tom Menino, a co-chair of a group of Mayors Against Illegals Guns, told The Boston Herald that the vice president had told him Obama wants to sign a gun violence bill “by the end of January.”

Moving quickly will allow gun-control backers to mobilize public anger in the wake of Newtown, in order to put pressure on lawmakers wary of bucking the gun lobby. And there are signs that’s happening. A coalition of big-city mayors led by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has been rallying popular support. Gabby Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who was gravely injured in a 2011 mass shooting, has been involved. And the Million Mom March is said to be planning a major demonstration for the spring.

“There are numerous efforts underway with an outside strategy, that is going to help capture this energy so it becomes more uncomfortable for Republicans not to move something,” an aide to a pro-gun-control lawmaker told, citing high levels of public support for individual gun-control measures.

The Washington Post reported Monday that the Obama administration has met with religious leaders, mental-health professionals and hunters, in an effort to build a broad coalition.

Part of that strategy could involve peeling off the NRA’s traditional allies. The Post added that the administration may try to enlist support from Wal-Mart and other gun retailers, who could benefit from legislation that prevents people from buying guns at gun shows without a background check.

Brian Malte, a director of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, pointed to the 1993 Brady Bill, which instituted background checks on some gun purchasers, as a model for the kind of targeted public campaign that’s needed.

“There was a real effort to get into urban and suburban districts across the country,” Malte said. “And the same principle applies here: You’ve got to get to 218 votes. So you make sure you’re going after the right districts—urban and suburban districts across this country.”

“Some will be harder than others,” Malte added. “But we know this can be done from the Brady Bill.”

Gun-control supporters are looking as well to the assault weapons ban, also passed in 1993, for lessons.

“The most effective lobbying tool that we had at the time was momentum, as a result of a series of gun violence tragedies in the country,” Michael Lenett, who helped write and pass that measure as a lawyer for the Senate Judiciary committee, told “That was the number one thing that helped the bill get through.”

The assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004, also included a provision that Sen. Dianne Feinstein—who led the ’93 effort and plans to introduce a bill this month to reinstate the ban—is said to be looking at reprising: A list of the hundreds of hunting rifles and shotguns then that would not be prohibited. Known as Appendix A, the list helped reassure gun owners that the ban was limited in scope, say those involved with the push.

“By explicitly protecting hundreds of popular sporting guns, the bill enabled senators and representatives to push back against the tide of protests—many of them generated by the National Rifle Association—at town hall-style meetings in their states and districts,” Adam Eisgrau, who as a lawyer for Feinstein helped pass the law, wrote in a New York Times op-ed Thursday.

Another factor that helped get the ban passed last time: It was added to a crime bill—including putting more cops on the street—that was a top priority for the Clinton administration, making it more difficult for opponents to sideline. Lennet called that proviso "exceptionally important."

This time around, there’s no crime bill. But gun control will be just one component of a more comprehensive measure to reduce gun violence through a range of approaches, including better mental health treatment, beefed-up school security, addressing violence in movies and video games, and more. That could make pro-NRA lawmakers wary of appearing to stand in the way of a broad-based, multi-faceted response to Newtown.

Still, advocates of tighter gun laws know they have a long way to go. DeGette acknowledged on PoliticsNation that although she’d found Republicans and pro-NRA Democrats newly willing to engage, “no one’s signed on yet.”

Malte thinks that will change in the coming weeks. “We’re quite certain there are members of Congress who want to speak out, but just haven’t done that yet,” he said.