* Seek to close so-called gun show loophole
* Advocates see best chance in decades
By Susan Cornwell and Tabassum Zakaria
WASHINGTON, Jan 17 The last time the U.S.
Congress took a good look at toughening gun laws, in 2010, it
was standing room only in a Capitol Hill committee room as Colin
Goddard, a survivor of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech, urged
lawmakers to act.
They didn't. And Goddard, who was shot four times but
survived the 2007 university massacre in which 32 people were
killed, says he believes that lawmakers were intimidated by the
U.S. gun rights lobby.
"I did a lot of lobbying around town, trying to put as much
pressure as I could," Goddard, now 27, an advocate for the Brady
Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said in an interview.
He became disheartened after lawmakers told him, "'don't
make me do this now,'" he said. "They were frankly, cowards."
In the wake of another mass shooting, a gunman's rampage
that took 26 lives at a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school
in December, President Barack Obama is pledging to take action
to reduce gun violence.
Obama on Wednesday proposed the biggest U.S. gun-control
push in decades, including mandatory background checks for all
gun buyers - the issue Goddard pressed more than two years ago.
Gun control advocates see the best chance in decades for new
regulations. But they are also intimately familiar with failure.
Introduced in 2009, the "Gun Show Loophole Closing Act"
sought to change a law that allows Americans to buy guns from
unlicensed sellers at gun shows in most states without passing
criminal background checks.
A forum on the bill was held in 2010 on Capitol Hill, but no
votes were taken despite the fact that Democrats, generally more
supportive of gun regulations, controlled Congress and the White
The bill's backers said lawmakers from both parties feared
the political clout of the principal gun lobby, the National
"People then and people now, were and still are afraid of
the NRA," said U.S. Representative Mike Quigley, a Democratic
co-sponsor of that bill.
The legislation "met resistance from the get-go," said
former Representative Mike Castle, who was the main Republican
sponsor of the bill. "It was just not something that the
leadership of Congress wanted to consider at that time."
The decision to expand background checks now rests with a
divided Congress. The White House says it is determined to push
for change, including via executive orders. But even Obama
acknowledged on Wednesday, "The most important changes we can
make depend on congressional action."
Part of the equation will be whether Democrats remain as
gun-shy about gun control legislation as they have been since
the mid-term elections of 1994, when the party lost control of
both houses of Congress after an assault weapons ban was passed.
Other factors were at play in the Democrats' 1994 loss:
Congress had raised taxes in 1993 and fought over health care
reform. But former President Bill Clinton, the Democrat who
signed the assault weapons ban into law, blamed the 1994 loss of
the House of Representatives on the gun lobby.
"The NRA had a great (election) night," Clinton said in his
Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman
Schultz said that in recent years, Democrats in competitive
congressional districts had feared that if they supported any
gun regulations, "the NRA would come after them."
"The reason we have not been able to have any action on
reasonable gun policy is because we knew it wasn't passable. If
you know something isn't possible - politics is the art of
what's passable," she said in an interview.
A Pew Research Center survey released this week found that
85 percent of Americans favor background checks for private and
gun show sales, while 12 percent oppose it.
Gun rights advocates argue that restricting those rights,
which are protected in the 2nd Amendment to the U.S.
Constitution, does nothing to stop gun violence.
The NRA didn't respond to requests for comment. A spokesman
for a smaller gun rights group, the Gun Owners of America, said
it had lobbied against the Gun Show Loophole Closing Act in 2009
and 2010 because it opposes all background checks on gun sales.
"They don't stop an Adam Lanza from killing someone and
stealing their weapons," said Erich Pratt, director of
communications for the Gun Owners of America.
Lanza, the gunman in the Newtown shooting, used his mother's
guns, killing her before embarking on the school rampage.
Goddard said lawmakers were so uneasy in 2010 that they
would not hold a committee hearing on the gun show loophole
bill. He testified at an informal "forum" instead.
Lobbying by the gun rights groups during the period was
intense. Three gun-rights groups that opposed the bill dropped
more than $10 million on lobbying during 2009 and 2010.
That was 20 times the $470,000 that two gun-control groups
supporting the bill spent during the same period. Because of the
way lobbying records are kept, it is impossible to know how much
of the expenditures were solely for the gun show loophole bill
as opposed to other issues.
The big spenders opposing the bill were the NRA ($5.3
million), Gun Owners of America ($3 million) and the Citizens
Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms ($1.8 million).
Supporting the bill were Mayors Against Illegal Guns
($390,000) and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence
A decade before the Gun Show Loophole Closing Act was
introduced in the House, a 1999 proposal to require background
checks at gun shows got through the Senate - barely - in the
wake of the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado
that killed 13 people.
But in the end it too failed to become law.
A 2004 proposal by Republican Senator John McCain met a
After the Newtown shooting, in which most victims were
children aged 6 and 7, some gun control proponents say elected
officials' fear of the gun lobby may be dissipating.
"Although the sentiment that we simply can't touch gun
reform has held strong in Congress for more than a decade, the
Newtown shooting has made an impact that so many others have
not, and Americans are saying enough is enough," said Democratic
Senator Frank Lautenberg, who is re-introducing his 1999 bill.
The Gun Show Loophole Closing Act was re-introduced in the
House this month by Representative Carolyn McCarthy, a Democrat,
with Quigley again a co-sponsor.
Goddard, who was a student at Virginia Tech at the time of
that shooting, said he already has seen signs of change.
"In the past month, we've had (lawmakers') offices that were
cold to us before, really wouldn't give us the time of day, now
reach out and say, 'Let's talk,'" he said.
"Your initial reaction was dammit, where were you before?"
Goddard said. "But you've kind of got to swallow that anger. Now
we have the opportunity -- let's make the most of it."