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After Newtown, Gun Control Debate Spurs Political Action Across the Nation

February 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the nine weeks since the Newtown shooting massacre, the gun control debate has spread far beyond the Beltway. Gwen Ifill and political editor Christina Bellantoni explore what steps American cities have taken to curb gun violence, and how opposition voices have attempted to fight these measures.
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GWEN IFILL: After Aurora, after Virginia Tech, after Columbine, the question of gun violence becomes a recurring national conversation.

This evening, NewsHour joins PBS in a week of special coverage on the topic of gun violence: “After Newtown.”

The waves of reaction since December’s Connecticut school shooting continue to reverberate from coast to coast, as gun control activists push for stricter laws, and gun owners chafe against the prospect of new regulation, prompting for now an increase in sales of firearms and attendance at gun shows.

That debate is now spreading well beyond Washington, as cities and states take steps to distance themselves from gun manufacturers. In New York last week, the city school teachers’ pension fund sold off $13.5 million dollars it held in stock with five gun makers. That followed action in California, where the state teacher’s retirement system, CalSTRS, also stripped itself of $11.7 million dollars of investments from three gun manufacturers.

And the Golden State’s $254 billion dollar public employees retirement system is also deciding whether to withdraw the $5 million dollars worth of shares it holds in two companies. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel focused on banks, asking TD Bank and Bank of America to stop financing gun manufacturers.

Chicago’s gun violence has placed it in the center of the national debate. Michelle Obama attended the funeral of Hadiya Pendleton, who was shot to death near her school days after marching in the presidential inaugural parade. And Pendleton’s parents joined Mrs. Obama as her guests at the State of the Union speech last week.

President Obama returned to his hometown last week to stress the need for action on gun violence.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Last year, there were 443 murders with a firearm on the streets of this city. And 65 of those victims were 18 and under. So, that’s the equivalent of a Newtown every four months.

GWEN IFILL: In fact, just hours after the president spoke, 18-year-old Janay McFarlane was shot and killed in Chicago. Her 14-year-old sister Destini Warren, had attended the president’s speech.

The fallout from gun violence has extended to politics, as Chicago moves toward next week’s special election to fill the congressional seat vacated by Jesse Jackson Jr.

A gun control group financed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has spent more than a million dollars on ads attacking candidates there supported by the National Rifle Association. Another group organized by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, is paying for gun control ads airing nationwide.

MARK KELLY, Husband of Gabrielle Giffords: What we’re going to do is we’re going to support people running for office. And we’re going to oppose others that are unwilling to do something on this issue. I mean, we’re going to spend money in these races. And we are committed to making sure that we have safer schools and safer communities. And the first thing we can do, the thing we can do right now is to pass a universal criminal background check.

GWEN IFILL: But in at least 20 states, from Wyoming to Virginia, lawmakers are pushing back with bills they say will preserve the rights of gun owners.

Now for a closer look at how the politics of gun control is spreading beyond the nation’s capital, we turn to NewsHour political editor Christina Bellantoni.

Christina, what is the difference between what we see happening in these state capitals and these city halls and what we have seen happen, the debate we have seen periodically here in Washington?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Well, there’s a big difference in that state legislatures are all meeting right now. Most of them are in session. You have got governors who want to get on the national stage. You have got a lot of Republicans who control state legislatures, particularly in the South. They want to strengthen gun freedoms.

And then you have a lot of more liberal legislatures controlled by Democrats who want to strengthen gun control. So, in Colorado today, we saw a measure where they advanced expanding background checks. They advanced a measure that would limit the number of magazine sales. Contrast that with Arkansas. Even though there’s a Democratic governor there, it’s a fairly conservative state politically. The governor signed a bill allowing you to conceal-carry a weapon in churches.

They’re advancing a bill that will allow you to carry a gun on a college campus. So, you’re seeing a lot of that. And then, at the broader level, this pensions issue is really where more liberal Democrats are really wanting to get at these gun manufacturers, where it hurts financially.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about the pensions issue, because I remember back in the day that people wanted universities to divest on investments in South Africa as a way of making a political statement. Is that where the battle is now with guns?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Well, it’s interesting when you look at the numbers. The big decision with the New York City school teachers pension program that came last week, this is $13.5 million dollars out of a $46.6 billion dollar fund in total. That’s not that much of their fund, but it’s a much larger number than some of the others we saw.

The California teachers had a smaller number, less than $12 million dollars. CalPERS was talking about $5 million dollars. That’s the California public employees pension, that — they’re trying to pull that out. But you’re also seeing efforts coming from the mayors. Philadelphia, for example, they passed this Sandy Hook principals legislation, which basically says we want you to adhere to better background checks, more expansive background checks, not selling magazines in certain capacities.

And so we want to make sure that you are supporting those. And if you don’t, then we’re not going to fund you.

GWEN IFILL: But in a city like Chicago, we saw Rahm Emanuel say he’s going to tell the banks to stop doing things. What leverage does he have?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Very little. One mayor has very little. Basically, he’s saying you can’t lend in this case to be able to give money to these gun manufacturers.

But at the same time, if more and more mayors start to do that, if they’re adopting these things — we saw it happen at the Los Angeles City council level. And you’re seeing it expand rapidly, very similar to what happened with South Africa as well.

GWEN IFILL: Jesse Jackson’s congressional seat in Chicago has become a ground zero for lots of reasons, but in this particular case when it comes to gun violence, how much of that is this Bloomberg money, Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s PAC having on this race?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Well, Mayor Bloomberg, a billionaire, is willing to spend here.

He spent $5 million dollars in a Democratic contest in California in the fall last year and was able to oust an incumbent, Congressman Joe Baca, and bring in a newcomer to this race. And that’s very similar to what he’s trying to do here. He’s running against a former member of Congress, Debbie Halvorson, in that ad that we saw in that setup there.

And he’s basically saying, I can spend my money here and I can really effect change in little ways. And that’s where he wants to make the difference.

GWEN IFILL: You look at this. You look at what’s happening in Philadelphia and — well, not Arkansas, is the example where it’s going the other way, but you see what’s happening in Colorado, all these different places. And you wonder to yourself, so is the all-powerful NRA taking this lying down or is there pushback going on?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: There’s definitely pushback.

And you’re hearing them. They put out their own poll figures all of the time, trying to say that their members and the broader public don’t support these efforts to tighten gun control efforts. You’re also seeing them planning to spend a lot more money in their own congressional races.

With Mark Kelly, they’re saying they’re going to spend a lot of cash in the upcoming 2014 elections with House Democrats trying to win back control of that chamber. The NRA plans to really get involved here.

GWEN IFILL: Is it too soon to say that this is going to be a major issue on a lot of state agendas this year?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: No, not at all. In fact, I was just looking at some numbers from C.Q. Roll Call State Track. There were 2,319 bills introduced just this year.

GWEN IFILL: How many?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Two thousand three hundred and nineteen bills introduced, already 132 signed relating to guns in general.

GWEN IFILL: Just since January.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Yes. So, you’re seeing legislatures really take on this issue, whether it’s for it or against it. And, of course, the national debate going, everybody wants to get a piece of that at all.

GWEN IFILL: OK. Well, we will be watching that national debate, of course. But we will also be watching the local one as well.

Christina Bellantoni, thank you.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Thanks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Our special reporting project continues online. Today, we hear from high schoolers around the country who speak about the case for arming teachers and how violent video games affect their peers. Find that on our home page, NewsHour.PBS.org.