by Joaquin Sapien, ProPublica.
Last week, President Obama unveiled sweeping proposals on gun control, including a ban on military-style assault weapons, a reduction of ammunition magazine capacity and stiffer background checks on gun buyers.
National Rifle Association president David Keene quickly accused the Obama administration of being opportunistic. The president is “using our children to pursue an ideological anti-gun agenda,” he said.
The NRA has already begun to lobby on Capitol Hill to counter the administration’s effort.
To get a sense of what the NRA might do, it’s helpful to look at how it scored a victory during the last major federal initiative to tighten gun control.
After a Virginia Tech student killed 32 students and faculty in April 2007, the Bush administration proposed legislation that would require all states to share the names of residents involuntarily committed to mental health facilities. The information would be provided to a Federal Bureau of Investigation database.
The idea, in part, was to help gun dealers get important information about whether potential customers were mentally ill.
In order to get the support of the NRA, Congress agreed to two concessions that had long been on the agenda of gun-rights advocates — concessions that later proved to hamstring the database.
The NRA wanted the government to change the way it deemed someone “mentally defective,” excluding people, for example, who were no longer under any psychiatric supervision or monitoring. The group also pushed for a way for the mentally ill to regain gun rights if they could prove in court that they’d been rehabilitated.
The NRA found allies on both sides of the aisle to champion the concessions.
Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) reportedly pushed the provisions, ultimately with the support of the bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), whose husband was killed and her son wounded in a 1993 shooting on the Long Island Railroad.
The NRA agreed to support the bill, in exchange for provisions pushing states to create gun rights restoration programs.
Here’s how it worked. It would cost money for states to share their data: A state agency would have to monitor the courts, collect the names of people who had been institutionalized, and then send that information to the FBI on a regular basis.
So, to help pay for data-sharing, Congress created $375 million in annual federal grants and incentives. But to be eligible for the federal money, the states would have to set up a gun restoration program approved by the Justice Department. No gun rights restoration program, no money to help pay for sharing data.
A spokesman for Dingell’s office did not respond to calls for comment on this story. A McCarthy spokesman, Shams Tarek, said the congresswoman is now working on new legislation to “provide more incentives and stiffen penalties for states to put names in the database.”
“We definitely think there’s a lot of room for improvement,” said Tarek.
The NRA supported Dingell and McCarthy’s version of the bill, but the group won further concessions when the legislation reached the Senate.
He negotiated language that, among other things, would allow a person’s application for gun rights restoration to be granted automatically if an agency didn’t respond within 365 days of the application and allowed people to have their attorney’s fees reimbursed if they were forced to go to court to restore their rights.
The final bill was sent to President Bush for his signature in January, 2008.