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For Gun Control Advocates, Defeats Continue to Pile Up

Gun control advocates suffered what might be their worst defeat earlier this month when, by a margin of better than 2 to 1, the House passed H.R. 1036, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. [IMGCAP(1)]

That act prohibits “civil liability actions from being brought or continued against manufacturers, distributors, dealers or importers of firearms or ammunition for damages resulting from the misuse of their products by others.” In other words, it cuts off a legal strategy that gun control advocates have been pursuing to destroy the firearms industry.

The act’s passage, and the size of the majority, reminds us how dramatically the issue of gun control has turned in the United States.

Just a few years ago, supporters of new restrictions seemed to have the strong upper hand. With much of the national media calling for new laws, Jim and Sarah Brady leading the drive to end gun show sales, and school shootings in Arkansas and Colorado focusing attention on gun violence, more restrictions on gun ownership seemed inevitable.

Now, gun control opponents clearly have the momentum. Top-tier Democratic presidential hopefuls have given surprisingly little attention to the issue, with the exception of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who wears his support of gun owners’ rights as a symbol of moderation and electability when it serves his purposes. (He opposes H.R. 1036.)

President Bush’s Electoral College victory also has changed the equation. Traditionally Democratic West Virginia turned red in the 2000 presidential race, at least in part because of gun issues, giving the National Rifle Association renewed clout with Republicans.

On Capitol Hill, supporters of gun-owner rights aren’t merely turning back efforts to establish more limits on firearms. They are taking the fight to their opponents, defining the issue in such a way that they are able to pass legislation to protect gun rights. The result: fewer Republicans and Democrats are sticking with the gun control position.

Four years ago, the House battled over H.R. 2122, which required background checks at gun shows. Forty-seven pro-gun-control Republicans voted against an amendment offered by gun control opponent Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) requiring background checks to be completed within 24 hours.

A couple of hours later, more than half of those same Republicans, 25, backed a substitute by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) that would have transformed the bill into an out-and-out gun control measure.

In contrast, only three Republican House Members voted earlier this month against the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, the position of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence: Reps. Mike Castle (Del.), Christopher Shays (Conn.) and the always inscrutable Ron Paul (Texas).

Almost half of the Republicans who had supported Conyers, 12 of 25, voted this month to protect gun manufacturers and dealers from lawsuits. The switchers included Reps. Tom Davis (Va.), James Greenwood (Pa.), Nancy Johnson (Conn.), Jim Leach (Iowa), Doug Ose (Calif.) and Jack Quinn (N.Y.).

While 49 “pro-gun” House Democrats voted against the Conyers substitute in 1999, 63 Democrats voted for H.R. 1036 earlier this month. Among the 63 were 16 who had voted for Conyers just four years ago. The list includes Reps. Harold Ford Jr. (Tenn.), a prospective 2006 Senate candidate, and Chet Edwards (Texas) and Earl Pomeroy (N.D.), both of whom could face tough re-election tests in their rural districts again in 2004.

To be sure, the 1999 bill (and amendments) and the 2003 measure were similar only in that they all involved gun control. The first bill dealt with gun shows and waiting periods, while the current bill involves liability. The difference explains some of the switches, since some Republicans see the current bill as a “tort reform” measure.

But given the emotional nature of the issue, and the black-and-white approach of both gun control and gun-owner-rights advocates, the changing numbers — and the new strategy — can’t be ignored.

While the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1036, Senate action on the companion bill, S. 659, is not yet certain even though the bill has 52 sponsors. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has already threatened a filibuster, and she needs just 40 other Senators to prevent passage.

Opponents of the legislation portray the bill as a “special interest giveaway” to gun manufacturers. They hope that now that the war in Iraq is winding down, Americans will refocus on domestic issues and begun paying attention to what critics of the bill say is an “extreme” proposal. To them, the issue remains the same: keeping guns off of the streets, not tort reform.

Can supporters of the bill get to 60 votes in the Senate? The odds are in their favor. Only one Republican, Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee, is counted as a likely “no,” while nine Democratic Senators are already backing the bill. That means supporters of S. 659 may need just one more Democrat (or Independent) to guarantee passage.

With Sens. Mark Pryor (Ark.), Evan Bayh (Ind.), Kent Conrad (N.D.), Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), Tom Daschle (S.D.) and even Patrick Leahy (Vt.) still undeclared on the bill, opponents of the legislation face a difficult and uphill fight.

Opponents of more gun control are now dictating the terms of the debate. How times have changed.

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