In the year’s first high-profile legislative setback for the gun lobby, the Senate on Wednesday shot down legislation to scrap state and local laws dictating who can carry concealed firearms.
The vote marks a rare victory for gun reformers, including President Obama, who have had little success battling the powerful National Rifle Association this year despite commanding Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), would have forced states to honor concealed weapon permits issued by other states, even in cases when local laws would prohibit the visiting gun owner from carrying firearms in public. Hardly a partisan issue, the measure highlighted the chasm between lawmakers from the less populous rural regions, where gun rights are sacrosanct, and those representing the more urban coastal states, where higher population densities and crime rates have led local governments to enact stricter limits on concealed-carry eligibility.
The count in the Senate was 58 to 39 — two votes shy of the 60 needed to defeat the filibuster led by liberal Democrats. Twenty Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), joined almost every Republican in supporting the bill. Sens. George Voinovich (Ohio) and Richard Lugar (Ind.) were the only Republicans to oppose the measure.
Under Thune’s proposal, gun owners granted the right to carry concealed weapons publicly in their home state would retain that right when traveling across state lines, provided that they comply with the other concealed-carry laws of the host state, such as restrictions on where guns can be carried. The rule would not have applied in Illinois, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia, the only jurisdictions that prohibit concealed carry altogether. The bill, Thune said on the Senate floor before the vote, would “allow law-abiding people to protect themselves from criminals when they travel across state lines.”
But in their successful opposition push, most Democrats maintained that the proposal would deny the rights of states and municipalities to set their own concealed-carry eligibility requirements based on local conditions. New York City, for example, with a population of 8.4 million, has different concerns about who can carry guns than the state of Vermont, with a population of 621,000, opponents argued. Indeed, every gun owner in Vermont has the automatic right to carry their firearm in public, while New York statutes empower law enforcers to deny concealed-carry permits on a discretionary basis. Yet under the Thune bill, those eligible to conceal firearms in the Green Mountain State could also carry them in Manhattan.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Thune’s bill would “impose the lowest common denominator” for concealed-carry eligibility on all states and municipalities. “This is probably the most dangerous piece of legislation to the safety of Americans when it comes to guns since the repeal of the assault weapons ban,” Schumer said just before Wednesday’s vote.
Scott Knight, chief of police in Chaska, Minn., who also chairs the Firearms Committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, echoed that message. Minnesota law, Knight said, bars those convicted of domestic and substance abuse from getting concealed-carry permits. Yet the Thune proposal would have allowed gun owners from states without those prohibitions to carry firearms down the streets of Minnesota with impunity.
Of importance, the Thune bill would not have overridden state laws dictating how or where gun owners could carry weapons, but only who. Arizona, for example, just passed a state law allowing concealed loaded weapons in bars. The Thune bill, however, wouldn’t allow Arizona residents to carry their guns into bars in states where the practice is prohibited.
Supporters of the Thune bill disputed the claims that the measure would empower criminals. “Of all the people we need to worry about committing gun crimes and violence unlawfully, the people with a conceal-carry permit are probably the last on the list,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
Ironically, the Thune amendment put many state-rights defenders in the odd position of stealing the powers of local governments to regulate themselves. Republicans, generally known for insulating states from the reach of Washington, took the opposite tack in Wednesday’s vote, effectively voting to eliminate the rights of states to decide what’s best for their own residents on the issue of gun reform. “It’s an attack on states rights by people who usually support states rights,” said Daniel Vice, senior attorney with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
The NRA did not return calls for comment. But the group shot out a statement immediately after the vote lauding the 58 lawmakers who supported the bill, even as that number fell two members shy of passing the bill. “The vote shows that a bipartisan majority agrees with the NRA,” said NRA-ILA Executive Director Chris W. Cox.
The gun-reform issue has been a tough nut to crack for the young White House. President Obama ran on a platform of controversial gun reforms, including the return of the assault weapons ban, only to discover that Washington’s political climate is hardly suitable to cultivate those proposals. Indeed, with the Democrats picking up many of their new seats in conservative-leaning districts, even House passage of tighter gun controls has been a political impossibility.
Instead, the NRA has gained ground. In May, Obama was forced to sign a bill, attached to a larger credit card reform proposal, allowing concealed weapons in national parks. And legislation scrapping most of Washington, D.C.’s strict gun control laws — attached to a bill granting D.C. a voting Congress member — has stymied House Democratic leaders, who want to pass the underlying bill but not the gun amendment. As a result, the bill has sat idle for most of the year.
On Tuesday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) rejected a suggestion that the DC-vote bill is dead for the year. “It is still on my front burner,” Hoyer said. Still, he didn’t offer any suggestions about how the Democrats might push it through without swallowing the gun amendment.
Situations like that trouble public safety experts, who say the gun lobby’s sway at election-time forces lawmakers to vote with the NRA above the well-being of their constituents.
“It’s a pure and over-simplistic political apporach,” said Daniel Webster, co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University. “Regardless of what the policy is, [politicians feel] it’s safest not to be anti-gun … It’s hard to justify a lot of those votes.”