By NANCY BENAC and THOMAS BEAUMONT
It was a powerful moment on the White House lawn when thousands of guests, the loved ones of slain crime victims among them, crowded in as President Bill Clinton signed a sweeping crime bill that was six years in the making and included a hotly disputed ban on assault weapons.
“Today, at last, the waiting ends,” Clinton said on that day in 1994. “Today, the bickering stops, the era of excuses is over.”
Two decades and so many gun tragedies later, the political fallout from that long-gone assault weapons ban still casts a long shadow over Washington.
Gun-control advocates are scrambling to regroup after losing soundly to the National Rifle Association on their best opportunity in years to tighten gun laws. There’s no shortage of finger-pointing about what went wrong for them or theories about what to do next.
It was a grim-faced President Barack Obama who stood in the Rose Garden with a handful of family members of those slain at Newtown, Conn., after the Senate last week rejected background checks and other gun restrictions, including a new assault weapons ban.
“I see this as just round one,” the president said, raw emotion in his voice. “Sooner or later, we are going to get this right.”
But if the carnage at Newtown, the pleas of grieving family members and the persuasions of an engaged president weren’t enough to push gun restrictions through Congress, the road ahead is sure to be difficult for those advocating tighter controls.
The NRA is powerful as ever and poised to stand firm for the long haul. Sentiment for stricter gun laws, which rose after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in December, has slipped somewhat in recent weeks. Obama’s willingness to stick with the issue in a big way when he has immigration, budget and other pressing matters on his agenda is uncertain.
In the immediate aftermath of the latest votes, with legislative strategy up in the air, gun control advocates are pinning their best hopes on two broad paths forward:
n Trying to counter the NRA’s impressive grass-roots network of nearly 5 million members by summoning more passion and energy from people who support restrictions such as an expansion of background checks for gun purchasers. Unless public demand for tougher gun laws “becomes a permanent fixture in politics to counterbalance the NRA, it’s only going to be by luck and happenstance that gun control actually wins,” said Dartmouth government professor Ron Shaiko, who has written extensively about the lobbying industry.
n Strengthening gun laws at the state level, where gun control advocates have had a number of significant victories in the months since Sandy Hook. “We’re seeing leadership that is coming from the states, and we’re going to be there to help that momentum and to make sure that momentum is felt here in this city, in Washington,” said Mark Kelly, who founded a gun control group with his wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, after she was shot by a gunman in Arizona two years ago.
The NRA is digging in for a long fight and claiming public support naturally trends its way.
“There’s a big misconception out there that gun rights are where they are because of the NRA,” said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. “The reality is that majority of Americans support gun rights and support self-defense laws.”
Polls paint a mixed picture.
In an Associated Press-GfK poll this month, 49 percent favored stricter gun laws, 10 percent wanted less-strict laws and 38 percent thought things should remain as they are. The poll found some slippage in support for stricter laws from earlier in the year.
On some measures, though, there is broad backing. Polls show 90 percent of those questioned support expanded background checks, for example.
Both sides agree there’s an intensity gap on gun politics. Opponents of gun restrictions have been far more passionate about the matter and far more apt to vote solely on the issue, than those on the other side.
“It’s where politics trumps policy,” said Richard Feldman, head of the Independent Firearms Owners Association, which supported the background check bill.
Public interest in tighter gun controls has waxed and waned in relation to high-profile shootings over the years, said Shaiko, but “what is a constant in the equation is the NRA” — and skittish politicians know that.
Legislators “want to feel like they can take a position and not be harmed by it,” Shaiko said.
Their wariness harks back to passage of the last assault weapons bill, in 1994.
After Congress approved the 10-year ban on 19 types of military-style assault weapons, some Democrats quickly came to believe that it contributed to their loss of the House a few months later. When the ban lapsed in 2004, congressional Democrats made no serious effort to renew it.
Harry Wilson, a Roanoke College professor and expert on gun politics, said the NRA’s clout comes more from its motivated members who vote, than it does from the group’s campaign contributions to help those who back the NRA agenda and defeat those who don’t.
“If the NRA was only money and (leaders) Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox, nobody would care,” Wilson said.
Obama entered his second term convinced of the need to marshal public support to push his agenda through Congress. After last week’s loss on guns, he said people were “going to have to sustain some passion about this.”
“You outnumber those who argued the other way,” he said. “But they’re better organized.”