In July of 2009, standing on the floor of the Senate, Charles Schumer delivered an impassioned speech denouncing one of the more pro-gun proposals in recent memory: an amendment that would have allowed concealed firearms to move freely across state lines.
It was, in a way, vintage Schumer–the kind of speech he had honed as a Brooklyn congressman pushing the Brady Bill in the early 1990s–but a side rarely seen in the past 10 years, as national Democrats mostly shunned the divisive debate over gun control that they once pushed aggressively to the fore.
“I remember, when [the amendment] was first starting to come up, we met with Schumer and it was sort of like, ‘Oh, there’s no way we can win these things; we don’t want to spend time and political capital fighting this,’” said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
In the end, Mr. Schumer-who preternaturally avoids losing causes-twisted enough arms that the amendment was defeated, in what counts as one of the most notable gun-control victories in an otherwise unmemorable decade.
“He came charging back, and Schumer did a great job,” said Mr. Helmke.
But gun-control advocates are still waiting for Mr. Schumer–or someone of his national stature–to aggressively enter the current debate over gun control, in the wake of last week’s tragic attack on Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others.
The reaction to Ms. Giffords’ horrific shooting has illustrated a new principle of Democratic politics on the issues of guns, in which the most ambitious proposals are largely left to House members in safely Democratic districts, with the scale of those ambitions diminishing in more marginal districts, or ascending up the ladder of party leadership.
On Sunday morning, Mr. Schumer convened his first press conference since the attack on Ms. Giffords. But the subject wasn’t guns.
Instead he presented some charts on the fraudulent tax returns filed by prisoners, before outlining a series of modest gun proposals–mostly covered by existing legislation–that he had presented earlier that morning on Meet the Press.
“Senator Schumer, I have to say, I detect some caution from you on this, that it might be the right direction, but you don’t really expect much traction here,” David Gregory told him on Meet the Press. “It’s not the normal enthusiasm I would expect from you on this issue.”
Mr. Schumer laughed and replied that he was trying to keep the debate civil in the wake of the tragedy, and to accomplish what was feasible in a political landscape that’s drastically changed from his years in the House.
At his press conference, he explained why victories over the past decade had been so sparse.
“One of the reasons there’s less impetus for gun control is the success we had in the ’90s,” he said. “The Brady Law is one of the most successful laws that has been passed.” He noted how many guns it had kept out of the hands of criminals, though adding that the law could still be “tightened up.”
The reluctance of Mr. Schumer to actively push any of the current legislation does not bode well for gun-control advocates, and the notable absence of a national figure to drive the conversation has left the more ambitious fights to advocates comfortably outside the range of the NRA.
On Thursday evening, Congressman Charles Rangel stood in front of his Harlem office, bundled against the cold in a long black coat, with a bullhorn aimed at a dozen or so Harlem mothers who had lost children to gun violence.
“Let me thank all of you that are out here,” he said. “Because if enough people do this throughout our country, then we can tell those gun manufacturers that, ‘Your time is up.’” The crowd broke into a chant: “Your! Time! Is! Up!”
But the next day, in a phone call with The Observer, Mr. Rangel was less optimistic. “I don’t really think that people who overly protect one’s right to own firearms are going to be impressed because somebody was killed,” he said. “If Reagan and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King and Jack Kennedy didn’t do it, I don’t think that’s going to have a meaningful change.”
To Mr. Rangel, among many others, the opportunity for enacting meaningful gun control probably expired in 1994–when Democrats lost 54 seats, shortly after President Clinton pushed Congress to pass both the Brady Bill and an assault-weapons ban, over the muffled objections of party moderates, and the fierce opposition of the National Rifle Association.
“I think a lot of guys came back and said had they not voted for gun control, they would still be in the Congress,” said Mr. Rangel. “I think the gun lobby retaliated, and put the fear of God in some.”
As Democrats clawed their way back to power over the next decade and a half, they did so with the memory of those losses, coupled with Al Gore’s defeat in 2000, when he dropped three winnable Southern states, including his home state of Tennessee.
“That’s another fact here,” said Mr. Schumer on Sunday morning. “There are fewer votes for gun control in the Congress, among Democrats and Republicans, because it tends to be a regional issue, and when Democrats start electing people in the West and the South, it’s harder to get them to vote for gun control.”
On Friday, after nearly a week of silence, the NRA’s lobbying arm posted a statement on its Web site that criticized two of the proposals offered in the wake of the shooting. “Please rest assured that the NRA will, as always, stand front and center in defense of the rights of gun owners,” read the unsigned statement.
And it’s that kind of aggressive response that makes party leaders reluctant to push any ambitious proposals.
“They will be counting votes,” said Mr. Rangel of the party’s leadership. “They will be saying what impact would this have on Republicans keeping Republicans, and Democrats keeping theirs.”
But the hope, however vain it might appear, is that the current moment might require some sort of action.
“The Republican leadership has to agree they want to do something, and they may want to look like they’re doing something commonsensical,” said Long Island Congressman Gary Ackerman, who has reintroduced a bill to close the so-called gun-show loophole, which allows firearms to be sold at gun shows without a background check. “If they do, that’s the opportunity.”
But there have been no such signs so far.
“I’ve had conversations, and none of them positive,” said Long Island Republican Peter King, who introduced a bill that would have banned guns within 1,000 feet of an elected official.
The law was considered by some to be unwieldy, but it also generated some positive press in both The Washington Post and National Review, and, in Mr. King’s estimation, might have at least merited consideration some 15 or 20 years ago.
Now, the idea is laughable.
“I was at the Republican retreat in Baltimore and guys were saying, ‘O.K., I can’t sit within 1,000 feet of King.’ It was friendly, but they were making it clear,” he told The Observer on Monday morning. “Everyone seems to be ducking on this.”
With neither party stepping up, the last best hope would seem to be the White House.
“It’s all going to come down to the president,” said Long Island Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, who was recruited to run for office by Mr. Schumer in 1996, several years after her husband was killed in a massacre on the Long Island Rail Road.
Ms. McCarthy’s bill would outlaw the kind of extended magazine used in the Arizona shootings, limiting the number of rounds to 10-a provision of the assault-weapons ban that expired in 2004, and one that the NRA has already made clear it will oppose.
“If the president doesn’t get involved,” Ms. McCarthy said, “then it’s not going to convince anybody in Congress or the Senate.”