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Uphill Gun Control Fight Feels Familiar to Advocates of Another Era

April 25, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The defeat of a bipartisan effort to expand background checks for gun buyers was cheered by gun rights advocates and denounced by the president and families of gun victims. Judy Woodruff takes a behind-the-scenes look at the fight over gun control and the decades-long evolution of lobbying tactics on both sides of the debate.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, we turn to the political debate over guns in this country and the decades-long evolution of lobbying tactics on both sides of the controversial issue.

VICE PRESIDENT JOSE BIDEN: The amendment is not agreed to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Last week’s defeat of a bipartisan effort to expand background checks for gun buyers was cheered by gun rights advocates and denounced by President Obama.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So, all in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was also a shocking loss for loved ones of the 20 children and six adults murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. These parents and relatives were part of a determined effort to influence political change.

For most, it was the first time traveling to Washington and directly lobbying members of Congress.

ERICA LAFFERTY, Daughter of Dawn Hochsprung: Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would be forced into a situation that I would have to be roaming the halls of the Senate building looking to talk to any person who will listen to me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Erica Lafferty lost her mother, Dawn Hochsprung, who was the principal at Sandy Hook.

ERICA LAFFERTY: She was a leader and an inspiration to everyone, her parents at the schools and the kids, and definitely most importantly to my sister and myself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The legislative failure was made more stinging by public opinion polls showing as many as 90 percent of Americans supported the proposal.

In addition, millions of dollars had been poured into TV ads by gun control proponents like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his organization Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, I-New York City: Demand action to fight gun violence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Also leading the advocacy were gunshot victim and former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly. The couple formed the political action committee Americans for Responsible Solutions.

FORMER CONGRESSWOMAN GABRIELLE GIFFORDS, D-Ariz.: Congress must act. Let’s get this done.

NARRATOR: President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg are pushing gun control.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All this wasn’t enough to beat the power of the gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association.

NARRATOR: We’re free already. And as long as we have the Second Amendment, we always will be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: They argue that even a limited expansion of background checks to include gun shows and online sales could lead to a national gun data base, something the president said was part of a pattern of spreading untruths.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: The gun lobby and its allies willfully lied about the bill. They claimed that it would create some sort of Big Brother gun registry, even though the bill did the opposite.

JUDY WOODRUFF: NRA president David Keene disputed that interpretation.

DAVID KEENE, President, National Rifle Association: Our credibility is the most important thing we have. When we say something, it’s because we believe it to be true, and we think the facts and the evidence supports it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Keene insists the proposed language would have given the federal government broad new powers.

DAVID KEENE: And so an expansion of the system was seen as a way of increasing the database that they could go to instantaneously, if they wanted to. And most of the senators and obviously our members and a lot of our supporters felt that, if they took that step, they were coming much closer to the national registry that a lot of people, including the Justice Department, have said they want.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Gramlich is the legal affairs reporter for C.Q. Roll Call. He says, even with an increased spotlight, gun control proponents face an uphill battle.

JOHN GRAMLICH, C.Q. Roll Call: They’re still emerging. They’re still new faces here. They have been vastly outspent over the years in terms of fund-raising, in terms of lobbying, direct lobbying in Congress. And so they’re still learning the ropes here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Whatever the specifics, the gun control fight was familiar to advocates of another era, also fresh from a tragedy that captured the nation’s attention, the 1981 attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan.

His press secretary, James Brady, was critically wounded in the attack. Twelve years later, President Bill Clinton signed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act into law, helping create the National Instant Criminal Background Check System that remains in use today. Less than a year later after that, the federal assault weapons ban was enacted. It would expire in 2004.

Thirty-two years after being shot in the head, Jim Brady remains bound to a wheelchair and has difficulties with his vision. He lives with his wife, Sarah, in Alexandria, Va.

Jim, why does it matter whether gun control legislation passes or not?

JAMES BRADY, Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence: We want to stop the carnage, all the killing that’s going on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you compare the lobbying that you faced in the 1980s with the passage of the Brady handgun bill with the kind of lobbying that you see going on today?

SARAH BRADY, Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence: We did it much more politically, I would guess, than they’re trying to do now.

I mean, we actually went in to every district that needed going in to. It was a lot of footwork and individual lobbying in the districts.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think they should have done that this time?

SARAH BRADY: Well, there wasn’t time. It’s strange because you hear some people will say, oh, they should have passed it right away, but that is naïveté, because it wasn’t going to be able to be passed right away.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sarah Brady also said she’s seen a difference in the gun lobby itself.

SARAH BRADY: They have entrenched themselves more deeply, I will say that, and are much bolder today than they were 20 or 25 years ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Reporter John Gramlich points to the center of the gun lobby’s political force, the NRA, and its more than four million members.

JOHN GRAMLICH: I mean, they got pretty much everything that they wanted and successfully opposed everything that they didn’t want in this current debate. And if they were able to do that after something as horrific as Newtown, then it really raises questions about anyone is able to defeat to them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But at the state level, the gun lobby has experienced some defeats. Democratic governors in New York, Connecticut and Colorado have all signed tough new gun laws since Newtown, legislation NRA president David Keene says hasn’t gone unnoticed.

DAVID KEENE: The biggest threats that we perceive coming against Second Amendment rights are in the states. We have been dividing our focus, shall we say, between the Congress and state legislatures for the last few months.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The NRA has also worked to strengthen gun rights in some states. Despite their loss on Capitol Hill, backers of gun control like Jim and Sarah Brady insist they’re not giving up.

JAMES BRADY: Discouragement is a temporary thing. You just saddle up and get back into the fight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Get back into the fight.

SARAH BRADY: Yes, I think you hardly ever win something without a defeat first.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid put consideration of the measure on hold, but said it’s only a matter of time before it’s brought back for another vote. Opponents like Keene say it will be a long time before that happens.

DAVID KEENE: I think it’s dead for this session, probably dead for the next few years in the Senate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Whenever it comes up, any measure would face potentially tougher odds in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, with both sides promising another round of fierce lobbying.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you can find much more from our comprehensive coverage of the gun debate. There’s a link on our home page.