The first federal gun control law was passed in 1968 after the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Brady bill mandating background checks on gun purchases was enacted in the years following the attempted assassination of President Reagan in 1981. But don't expect any new gun control laws coming out of Capitol Hill in the wake of the Tucson shooting rampage.
The reason is not only the new Republican majority in the House — it's that Democrats have traveled far from what was once one of their core legislative goals.
FOR THE RECORD:
Gun control: In the Jan. 14 Section A, an article about the unlikely prospects for new gun control legislation arising from the Tucson shooting rampage said the first federal gun control law was passed in 1968 after the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In fact, a predecessor to the sweeping 1968 law, the National Firearms Act of 1934, aimed to curtail transactions in certain firearms by assessing a tax on their manufacture and transfer. —
Democrats championed gun control in the 1980s and 1990s. But many backed away after the 2000 election, when Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore's support for tighter gun laws probably cost him votes in key rural areas.
The result essentially has been a truce on regulating guns, one that allowed the assault weapons ban to expire in 2004 and that has even seen key Democrats emerge as some of the gun lobby's leading allies.
The truce is believed to have served President Obama well during the 2008 campaign. Gun control, once a barrier for Democrats seeking votes in states like Virginia, Indiana or Nevada, hardly registered as a top topic.
That strategy is likely to carry into 2012. After the conservative-led rout in November, Democrats running in red states — and there are many in the Senate — will be eager to burnish their conservative credentials and hesitant to bump against the powerful National Rifle Assn.
Many factors in the Tucson shootings reflect the availability of guns and ammunition in this country: the suspect, Jared Lee Loughner, easily purchased a Glock semiautomatic pistol with extended magazines. He went practice shooting in the desert on the morning of Saturday's attack, in which six died and 13 others were wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), herself the owner of a Glock. Arizona recently allowed guns to be carried into bars, and is contemplating legislation that would allow college students to carry firearms on campus.
Advocates of new federal gun controls are planning to introduce legislation, but their aims are minimal and their expectations for passage very low.
"We're not looking at banning all weapons," said Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, a New York Democrat who wants to close a loophole that allows some private dealers to sell guns without conducting background checks. "We're looking to make sure that innocent people from all over will be safe in their own homes and public places. I think the tragedy and the heavy moment in which we find ourselves lends itself to some contemplation. I think there's a hope, at least, for reasonableness."
The argument is not likely to woo staunch gun rights advocates in Congress.
"I believe, as Americans have believed since the American founding, that firearms in the hands of law-abiding citizens make communities safer, not less safe," Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who is contemplating seeking the GOP presidential nomination, said in an interview. "And I understand the human impulse is to look for blame. Heartache does that. But no expressed opinion and no public policy created what happened on Saturday last."
In recent years, mass shootings have not generated momentum for new gun laws.
The 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, in which two teenagers murdered 13 people before killing themselves, sparked gun control proposals in Congress, but resulted in no changes. No new restrictions followed the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings in which 33 people died, including the gunman.
The proposals outlined this week are expected to have a similar lonely, uphill climb.
Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) have promised to propose measures banning the sale and import of high-capacity ammunition magazines, like the one police say Loughner used. Such magazines were prohibited under the assault weapons ban enacted under President Clinton in 1994 that lapsed a decade later.
Another proposal, from Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, would prohibit the carrying of guns within 1,000 feet of a federal official. In addition to Giffords being critically injured in Saturday's attack, U.S. District Judge John M. Roll was among those killed.
Republican leaders in the House already have come out against King's bill, underscoring their hostility to any measure that might be seen as weakening the 2nd Amendment.
Meanwhile, the Senate is led by Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat who often touts his gun rights credentials. Reid's office said proposals would be evaluated "to ensure that they are in the best interests of public safety and in line with the principles laid out in our Constitution."
Democrats have not only retreated from gun safety issues during the last four years they controlled Congress, but have supported top priorities on the NRA's agenda.
Recent years saw congressional passage of legislation to allow concealed weapons to be carried in national parks and firearms to be stowed in checked bags on Amtrak trains.
The political shift comes as public attitudes have softened toward gun ownership. A Pew Research Center survey in September reported greater support for gun rights than at any time in nearly two decades.
In addition, Supreme Court rulings in 2008 and 2010 struck down restrictive gun laws in Washington and Chicago, expanding ownership rights by ruling that cities and states must abide by the 2nd Amendment.
NRA endorsements cross party lines, and as more Democrats have emerged from conservative states in recent election cycles, the party has grown friendlier to 2nd Amendment rights. The powerful gun lobby backed dozens of Democrats along with Republican candidates in the last election cycle, spending more than $2 million overall, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Gun control advocates say they have not found an aggressive ally in the White House. On Wednesday, Obama made only vague reference to gun safety in his speech at a memorial for shooting victims in Tucson, saying: "We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of such violence in the future."
It was the most Obama has said about gun safety since becoming president, said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
"We've been very disappointed in him," Helmke said. "I'm hopeful that's a sign he's going to talk about gun safety laws soon."
On Thursday, the chief White House spokesman declined to be more specific.
"We all look forward to learning more about what happened and try to explain the why," Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said. "Evaluation of the facts and how we got to a tragedy like this, I think, requires us to look at everything."