Many U.S. politicians see gun control as an issue which can only bring them problems

Days after a massacre at a Colorado cinema in July, which left 12 people dead and scores more injured, Diana DeGette, a member of Congress from the State, made a plea.

“We don’t believe that [the U.S. Constitution] guarantees somebody the right to walk into a movie theatre with a semi-automatic weapon and 100-round ammo magazine and shoot 71 people,” she said. “We don’t believe that, and we believe that we need to have a national conversation.” Ms DeGette’s appeal for discussion of gun control ran into a brick wall. The Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, and the Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, were united in their opposition.

Many members of Congress regard gun control as an issue that can only bring them problems. Support for greater restrictions attracts the opposition of the powerful pro-gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, without winning many votes.

After the horror of Newtown, the issue is back on the agenda with more powerful voices calling for reform, from New York’s Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, to leading Senators. Among them is Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia and NRA member, who said on Monday it was time to “move beyond rhetoric” and discuss new gun controls. The question for President Barack Obama is whether the rest of Congress agrees.

The President’s appeal at the memorial service for the Newtown victims for an end to the “carnage” and suggestion that he is finally willing to press for further controls on guns is mobilising activists who believe that the brutal deaths of 20 small children have shocked the nation enough to embrace change.

The immediate push is for a renewal of the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban which barred the manufacture and import of an array semi-automatic weapons and high capacity bullet magazines. The law expired in 2004 amid strong resistance from the gun lobby, which said it had no discernible impact on crime levels. The Brady Centre to Prevent Gun Violence countered that the ban led to a significant drop in the number of such guns used in crime, although they were always only a fraction of the total.

An attempt to renew the ban is likely to face entrenched resistance from the NRA and many gun owners, which could scare off congressional support. After Congress passed the original restrictions on semi-automatics in 1994, Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives for the first time in nearly 40 years. The issue helped mobilise the gun lobby as opposition coalesced around the idea that the ban was the first step toward taking guns away from Americans.

Step forward to 2012 and the NRA is regarded as intimidating as ever. But the actual power of the NRA is open to dispute, and the presidential election data supports the theory it is not as terrifying as it appears.

The NRA spent almost $12 million in a failed attempt to stop Mr. Obama’s re-election, according to the Sunlight Foundation. Some members of Congress have suggested the pro-gun lobby is able to mobilise far fewer votes than it claims, and that its influence lies in its ability to intimidate, not least by threatening to throw millions into congressional races to support or oppose individual candidates. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2012

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