Thursday, April 4, 2013

What Congress?
States are prime movers on gun-law reform


THERE ARE some powerful voices on the other side that are interested in running out the clock, or changing the subject or drowning out the majority of the American people to prevent any of these reforms from happening at all,” President Obama said. “They are doing everything they can to make all our progress collapse under the weight of fear and frustration or their assumption is that people will just forget about it.”

Those comments made on March 28 at the White House and others he’s made since then are the latest pushback against the intransigence of members of Congress on gun-law reform. “Ninety percent support background checks,” Obama said. “More than 80 percent of Republicans agree, more than 90 percent of gun owners agree. Think about it. How often do 90 percent of Americans agree on anything?”

Despite the president’s call to action, and the efforts of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg toward ramping up pressure on Congress, the National Rifle Association has many legislators fearing primary challenges if they break with the NRA’s steadfast opposition to any movement of the issue at all. The result: The 113th Congress won’t likely advance the ball on the issue any further than the 112th did.

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That’s led to much despair and gnashing of teeth among gun-law reform advocates in the media lamenting the loss of a pivotal moment in the wake of the Newtown murders last December.

Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” closed Tuesday’s program with a downbeat perspective: “If you think our gun laws are good right now, that they’re giving us reasonable gun safety, don’t worry, be happy, be glad things are calm, things are staying the way they are.

“Because they are. Do you hear me? Nothing is going to change. The ways things are headed now, the U.S. Congress, which represents the whole American people, is not going to even vote on stronger background checks — something nine out of 10 of us agree on.

“Got it? Nothing. Nothing is going to get done.”

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HYPERBOLE AND exaggeration have long been two of Matthews’ reliable on-air rhetorical companions, and Tuesday’s closing comments proved the point again. But the facts are somewhat different; a look at the gun-law reform issue shows there’s reason to be hopeful, despite his pessimistic scenario.

What’s happening on gun-law reform isn’t happening in the halls of Congress. It’s happening little by little at the state level, where it matters, thanks to governors sympathetic to gun-law changes and legislatures willing to act independent of Congress’ voluntary paralysis.

In response to the Newtown shootings, the state of New York passed the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act in January, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo signing the SAFE Act into law a half hour after it was passed.

Late last month, the state of Colorado made its move when Gov. John Hickenlooper signed sweeping new gun laws that widen background checks on all private gun purchases and curb the size of ammunition magazines, barring sale of magazines with more than 15 bullets.

And earlier tonight, lawmakers in Connecticut — the state where the Newtown murders took place and riveted the nation’s attention 100-odd days ago — jointly approved a measure that will, when signed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy at noon on Thursday, become the strictest gun control law in the United States.

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State Sen. Bob Duff of Norwalk told The Connecticut Post he was “very proud of the fact that Connecticut has been able to do this in a bipartisan manner. But that also means we're going to have the strongest gun-control laws in the country, along with very strong mental health laws and school-security measures.”

On Wednesday the Maryland House of Delegates approved gun control legislation that requires fingerprinting and — holy of holies! — an assault weapons ban, something that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has walked away from.

The Firearms Safety Act of 2013, shepherded and championed by Gov. Martin O’Malley, downsizes ammo magazine limits by half (from 20 rounds to 10) and, yep, bans outright more than three dozen types of assault weapons, including the AR-15 Bushmaster, Adam Lanza’s weapon of choice in the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, and a weapon that will live in infamy.

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THE MESSAGE is an obvious one. There’s more than one way to get something accomplished.

Anyone expecting gun-law reform from Congress to be a slam-dunk — one broad and all-encompassing piece of legislation that effects national change in a trice, something with the thunderously dispositive impact of the Voting Rights Act or Roe v. Wade — is fooling themselves. We didn’t get to this point in the firearms access debate, and the myriad tragedies that have made that debate necessary, all at once.

This has been a process, not an event, and the changes to the nation’s gun culture and its laws will happen the same way, incrementally, in no small part because of today’s rancorous Washington politics.

This isn’t panacea or a view through rose-colored glasses. The road to real gun-law reform will be slower without some defining consensus legislation from Congress. And those who continue to favor liberal firearms access that dovetails with their reading of the permissions of the Second Amendment are digging in. In Nelson, Ga., a town of about 1,300 people north of Atlanta, a measure was passed on Monday requiring all city residents to own a gun.

The city council voted unanimously to approve the largely symbolic Family Protection Ordinance, the Associated Press reported. The law requires that every head of household own a gun and ammo to “provide for the emergency management of the city” and “protect the safety, security and general welfare of the city and its inhabitants.” The law imposes no penalty if you don’t want to own a gun; the council admitted that one purpose of the law is to express “opposition of any future attempt by the federal government to confiscate personal firearms.”

Ah yes, that’s the day when the black helicopters descend like locusts across the country and black-clad soldiers pry the guns from our cold, dead warm, living hands.

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But that's the facetious stuff. We can expect the serious fur to fly in Washington next week; the debate on various gun-law reform proposals will start after the Senate gets back from Easter recess.

Christina Wilkie of The Huffington Post reports: “Republicans, including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, have pledged to use the filibuster to block any gun control legislation from being put to a Senate vote, setting the stage for what is likely to be a pitched battle between Senate Democrats, led by Majority Leader Harry Reid and New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, and some of the Republican party's rising stars.”

But what’s important is that changes to those laws are really beginning. That’s what we’ve seen in New York, Colorado, Connecticut and Maryland: an understanding that the perfect can’t be the enemy of the good. O’Malley said as much in a January statement: “There is no way to completely eliminate the risk of another tragedy like the one in Newtown. But that cannot be an excuse that keeps us from doing common-sense things.”

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JUST LIKE with the marriage equality issue, another national concern that’s still the subject of fierce and partisan debate on Capitol Hill, it’s the citizens, and the state legislators who damn well better pay attention to the citizens, who are taking the lead here. Tired of the gridlock in Congress, they’re acting independent of Congress — and the White House — in doing at the state level what seems to be impossible to achieve anywhere else.

“States’ rights”? Without question; the phrase has never been more beneficially applied. But you can call it something else. To the extent that these legislatures are responding to citizen concerns (or just able to read polls like Wednesday’s MSNBC/Marist Poll showing 87 percent of Americans support background checks), what we’re seeing is the power of the states to effect the changes that the federal government can’t or won’t make. There’s a DIY mindset that at least some states have adopted on this issue. Call it “states’ responsibilities.”

Got it, Chris Matthews? This is what change in America looks like, too. In the three months since Newtown, a handful of states (more sure to follow) have sent an inescapable bipartisan message from Main Street to Capitol Hill, one they're willing to act on: If you want something done right — or even done at all — be prepared to do it yourself.

Obama: WH.gov. Paul: Neil W. McCabe/Human Events.

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