The Men Who Would Stop Gun Control

They are House Republicans, and they have already heard enough.

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), right, speaks during a press conference as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

What chance does any gun control bill have of making it through the Republican House?

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

Read more in Slate on gun control.

The unhappy truce between the White House and the National Rifle Association is over; the only surprise is that it lasted a month. Last week, after its representatives left a meeting with the vice president’s gun-law task force, the group put out its first real public statement since Wayne LaPierre doused himself with gasoline and dropped a match on his coif. “We were disappointed with how little this meeting had to do with keeping our children safe,” read the unsigned statement, “and how much it had to do with an agenda to attack the Second Amendment.” The NRA had only wanted to talk about putting armed guards in schools.

On Monday, President Obama basically wrote them off. “Those who oppose any common-sense gun control or gun safety measures have a pretty effective way of ginning up fear on the part of gun owners that somehow the federal government’s about to take all your guns away,” he said. “It obviously is good for business.” To prove him right—to prove how flabby and predictable the gun lobby’s media strategy is right now—the NRA responded by bragging that 250,000 new freedom-lovers had become members, as happens “every time President Obama opens his mouth.” It had nothing to do with the price of membership dropping from $1,000 to $300.

In public, Democrats are less afraid of the NRA than they’ve been in years. The LaPierre press conference contributed to a significant fall-off in favorable opinions of the gun lobby. That’s one reason why the post-Sandy Hook push for gun control has actually kept momentum. New polls that get granular about possible laws—an “assault weapons” ban, restrictions on extended magazines, expanded background checks—are finding supermajority public support. On Tuesday, during votes on Hurricane Sandy relief, reporters were crowded around Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, the luckless New York Democrat who’s constantly proposing gun laws that go nowhere. “The public is with us,” she said. “On the assault weapons ban, I believe the numbers were up to 70 percent this morning!”

The polls help, but how much do they matter to a Republican-run House? On Wednesday, President Obama will announce the specific recommendations of the Biden group. Democrats, who largely support passage of some bill, expect to move it through the Senate, putting pressure on the House. (This is why it matters that West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat whose best TV ad showed him putting a bullet through an environmental bill, is so chatty about a possible gun bill.)

But members of the House are far more conservative on gun laws, and far more vulnerable if they’re seen as straying on the Second Amendment. Rep. Raul Labrador, a Republican who represents western Idaho, said he wasn’t ruling out any ideas that might emerge from the Biden group. “I’m really open to listening to what they’re saying,” he said, “and to seeing the evidence that it will actually work.” His constituents had made their minds up. “They’re saying, ‘Don’t take our guns away.’ There’s a lot of support for the Second Amendment and I will continue to be a supporter of the Second Amendment.”

House Republicans are cautious. After all, they’ll get to decide whether or not Congress passes the first gun control bill since 1994. So their statements and responses on gun control can be sliced into three categories: dodges, compromise, and chest-pounding.

The dodging is hardest to pull off. On Tuesday, House Republicans generally held back questions about the known Biden proposals by saying they had to wait to see them in print. But they were very sympathetic. “I use an acid test,” said Virginia Rep. Scott Rigell. “If this was my children, my beautiful grandchildren, would I have the same view I have now?” He wrestled with it; he was cautious of “passing a bill just to say” that Congress had Done Something. “I’m a data-driven person and I’m looking for as much good counsel on how we can responsibly reduce gun violence.”

This is a common line—intentional or not, it creates a loophole. There’s obviously little hard data on how, for example, the existence of extended magazines has affected gun violence. But there is extensive reporting on the circumstances of recent shootings. If a proposed gun law would not have prevented that specific shooting, a Republican can say that it wouldn’t work at all. “What massacre occurred smack in the middle of the assault weapons ban?” asked South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy. It was a rhetorical question, a reference to the Columbine shootings. That was his point.

Gowdy won his seat, in 2010, by clobbering an incumbent Republican who’d been casting liberal votes. There’s no incentive for him to back any new gun law. That’s where the compromise comes in. Gowdy, like a lot of Republicans, wonders whether mental health laws, not gun laws, are the right response to Newtown.

“It’s already against federal law to possess any kind of gun if you’ve been adjudicated mentally defective,” he said. “Those are not my words. Those are the words of the state. Are you satisfied with those being the only mechanisms by which someone can be barred from carrying a firearm due to mental illness? Would you define it as someone who is likely to harm himself or others? Here’s my question: How many people were persecuted under that law? I’ve written the attorney general. I’ve asked him. How many times have local law enforcement gone to ATF, and they’ve declined?”

That’s what a House Republican says when he’s considering actual legislation. The “chest-pounding” response to the president is easier. It involves overheated panic at any “executive orders” that might be directed at guns. The single most quoted Republican congressman on gun rights this week was Texas Rep. Steve Stockman, a one-term veteran of the 1994 GOP wave who finally earned his comeback this year. He promised to stop executive orders “by any means necessary, including but not limited to eliminating funding for implementation, defunding the White House, and even articles of impeachment.” Tennessee Rep. Scott DeJarlais, getting in on the fun, speculated about using “any and all available legislative and legal options to protect and maintain our separation of powers,” to make the president “abandon this autocratic approach.”

This slots right into the “crazy Republicans act crazy” narrative. It helps with the constituents, but it’s a distraction. “What I have read so far indicates that President Obama and Vice President Biden want to make sure that we have enforcement of our current laws,” said Idaho’s Labrador. “I’m OK with that. If you talk to any law enforcement agent, that’s what we say, that we’re not enforcing the laws we have.”

Wednesday’s big announcement won’t be about “the laws we have.” It won’t just be about mental health, either. It will contain executive orders that Republicans have pre-condemned and limitations on sales that they have pre-judged as pointless. Any bill will need to satisfy a majority of the House Republican caucus—there can be no grand coalition, with a minority GOP vote, as there was on the fiscal cliff or on Hurricane Sandy funding. Spending bills and tax bills are nothing like gun rights bills. “We’ll see how much of tomorrow is politics,” said Gowdy, “and how much is thoughtful legal analysis.”