A customer looks at a pistol at a vendor's display at a gun show held by Florida Gun Shows in Miami on Jan. 9, 2016.

Is Orlando the Attack that Forces Action on Gun Control?

June 14, 2016
by Jason M. Breslow Digital Editor

It took just one day for new gun-control legislation to reach Congress following the massacre that left 49 people dead at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub on Sunday. If recent history is any guide, the bill has little chance of success.

The Hate Crimes Prevention Act would prohibit anyone convicted of a misdemeanor hate crime from either buying or owning a firearm. Speaking from Pittsburgh on Monday, the bill’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, said, “If you have proven you will commit criminal acts based on hate, you absolutely should not have access to a gun. It’s common sense.”

The bill, which was in the works before the Orlando shooting, joins a long list of gun-control measures to be proposed in the aftermath of a mass shooting — of which there have already been 133 in 2016, according to a running tally by the non-profit Gun Violence Archive. During the Obama administration, lawmakers in Congress, almost entirely on the left, have proposed several high-profile gun-control bills and many more amendments in the aftermath of an attack. Time after time, these attempts have failed.

The first big push for new legislation came in response to two shootings: the December 2012 slaughter in Newtown, Conn., an attack that left 20 first-graders and seven adults dead, and the shooting five months earlier at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., which killed 12 and wounded 70. A bipartisan bill from Senators Joe Manchin, (D-W.Va.), and Pat Toomey, (R-Penn.), would have expanded background checks, but it failed to reach the 60-vote threshold to overcome a filibuster by six votes. A separate ban on assault weapons failed by an even wider measure (40-60), as did a ban on high-capacity magazines (46-54).

June 2015 brought the attack that killed nine people at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C. That shooting led to a proposal by Rep. James Clyburn, (D-S.C.), aimed at at reforming the so-called “default proceed” rule, which effectively gives the FBI three days to respond to a background check request by a federally licensed firearm dealer. If the dealer doesn’t hear back, they can make the sale. The shooter in Charleston, Dylann Roof, should have failed a background check due to a previous drug arrest, but a clerical error meant it took the FBI longer than three days to finish its review, FBI Director James Comey later said. Clyburn’s bill failed to make it out of committee.

Another push for legislation followed the December 2015 attack in San Bernardino, Calif., in which 14 people were killed at an office holiday party. Democrats in Congress proposed a bill that would have given victims of gun violence the ability to sue gun manufacturers, sellers and interest groups. Currently, the industry is shielded from such lawsuits. The legislation has gone nowhere.

Other proposals have likewise come and gone. A 2014 bill from Sen. Ed Markey, (D-Mass.), would have provided the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention $10 million to study the causes and effects of gun violence. The bill never passed.  A 2015 bill sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, (D-Calif.) would have banned anyone on a terrorist watch list from buying a gun failed to advance, but on Monday Democrats in the Senate signaled that they’d try again. The shooter in Orlando was on a terrorist watch list for nearly a year, but his name was taken off the list by the time he bought the two weapons used in the attack just this month. On Monday, Sally Yates, the deputy attorney general, told reporters that the Justice Department might look for a new way to alert counterterrorism investigators if anyone who was on a terror watch list tried to buy a gun.

The latest bill from Sen. Casey wouldn’t have prevented the Orlando shooting, his press secretary Jacklin Rhoads acknowledged. “It wouldn’t have stopped that individual from buying a gun,” she told FRONTLINE, “but there’s plenty of individuals who show those first signs and maybe commit a smaller crime that this would apply to across the country.”

The one constant in each legislative defeat has been opposition from the gun-rights lobby, in particular, the NRA, which has stymied efforts to pass new gun control proposals while at the same time lobbying bills to expand gun rights across the nation. In the year following Newtown, for example, the group helped 27 states pass 93 laws expanding gun rights, including measures to allow people to carry concealed weapons in churches, public parks and schools, according to a FRONTLINE analysis.

In the absence of comprehensive legislation on the federal level, President Barack Obama announced in January a series of executive actions aimed at reducing gun deaths, including new rules to tighten background checks for gun buyers, regulate online firearm sales, and boost funding for enforcing gun laws.

Public opinion on the issue remains split. Polling from the Pew Research Center shows that 52 percent of Americans favor prioritizing gun rights, while 46 percent say it’s more important to control gun ownership. Gallup data shows that a majority of Americans support proposals to increase background checks, but they’re not convinced that better checks would reduce the number of mass shootings.

In the meantime, gun purchases have surged. While sales figures are not made publicly available, data from the FBI shows that the number of federal background checks surged by 40.6 percent between 2011, the year before Newtown, and 2015. Last year alone, the FBI processed more than 23 million background checks last year — the most on record.

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