Aiming at 2016

Tragedies fuel measures to keep guns from unsafe hands

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid said last week the National Rifle Association has become an adjunct of the Republican Party. At left is Reid’s Nevada state director, Mary Conelly.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid said last week the National Rifle Association has become an adjunct of the Republican Party. At left is Reid’s Nevada state director, Mary Conelly.


Those who thought, or hoped, that U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s retirement might make him less of a presence in Washington, D.C., were disappointed last week as Reid led an effort to get Republicans on the record on gun control votes.

In the wake of the Colorado Springs and San Bernardino tragedies, Reid—a longtime supporter of gun rights—said he and his Democrats would use a GOP effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act to try to pass amendments curbing guns in dangerous hands, such as those of terror suspects.

In tweets posted on Dec. 2 and Dec. 3, Reid said, “We cannot allow ourselves to grow numb to gun violence or to feel powerless in the face of it. … Gun violence has become a cancer on this nation. We must make common sense gun reforms that keep weapons out of dangerous hands. … We’re going to force the Senate to vote today on amendments that do something to stop gun violence.”

In a hallway news conference, he said, “We can start by passing improved background checks legislation. I know that the thought of upsetting the National Rifle Association scares everybody, especially my Republican colleagues. You know what scares the American people? Gun violence.”

Reid himself has received support from the NRA and worked with the organization in opening a shooting range in Clark County, but he differs with the group on types of weapons.

Sen. Ted Cruz raised the fever of the battle with this comment: “The overwhelming majority of violent criminals are Democrats. The media doesn’t report that. What they report—and there’s a reason why the Democrats for years have been viewed as soft on crime—because they go in and they appoint to the bench judges who release violent criminals.”

The Democrats were taken aback by the claim. Sen. Richard Durbin, the assistant Democratic leader, said when told of it, “What? Did he say that? No, that was Trump. It was Cruz? These guys are competing with one another, aren’t they?”

Reid went onto the Senate floor and mentioned Cruz’s Ivy League background: “That’s really quite stunning, that someone who, with the academic background of the junior senator from Texas, can’t read a simple report. ’The overwhelming majority of violent criminals are Democrats.’ Think about that. Fanning the flames of intolerance is un-American. We’re better than this.”

It was the second time he used that last phrase. On the day of the San Bernardino events, Reid said, “Gun violence has become a cancer on this nation. We are better than this. Too often we are turning on our televisions to scenes of horror like those we are witnessing today.”

The Cruz claim was quickly subjected to scrutiny by fact-checking websites, including FactCheck and the Washington Post, which found Cruz’s comment incorrect. FactCheck reported, “The claim is based on research that found a majority of ex-felons in three states registered as Democrats. But that was a study of all ex-felons, not just violent criminals, as Cruz framed it. Also, a follow-up study of three additional states by the same authors found the majority of ex-felons in those states were neither Republican nor Democrat. Another study estimated ex-felons are more likely to vote Democratic than Republican, but the authors caution that that doesn’t mean criminality is associated with partisanship. Rather, it is a reflection that those in the criminal justice system are more likely to be black, Latino or poor whites.”

Reid originally intended to sponsor an amendment of his own barring gun ownership to those convicted under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act of 1994. But he later yielded the sponsorship role to others.

An amendment sponsored by California’s Dianne Feinstein would have barred people on the federal terror watch list from gun purchases. The measure was defeated 44-53, with Republican Mark Kirk of Illinois voting with the Democrats, and Democrat Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota voting with the Republicans.

An amendment providing for background checks before online and gun show purchases can take place failed 50-48, with Republicans Kirk, Susan Collins of Maine, John McCain of Arizona, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania joining the Democrats. Democrats Heitkamp and Mark Warner of Virginia voted with the Republicans.

Republican John Cornyn offered a GOP alternative to that one, permitting the attorney general to delay a suspect terrorist from obtaining guns for 72 hours and requiring a court order to stop the sales. It went down 55-44, with Kirk voting against it and Democrats Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Joe Manchin of Wyoming voting for it.

And Republican Charles Grassley of Iowa introduced an amendment to increased funding for criminal prosecutions of those who fail background checks. It would also have made straw purchases criminal and offered incentives for states to contribute to a national mental health data base. It failed 53-46, with Donnelly voting for it and Kirk and Mike Lee of Utah in opposition.

In the end, the inaction in Congress led to headlines like this one in Fortune magazine: “Washington Won’t Do Anything on Gun Laws.”

It’s unlikely Reid ever expected any of the measures to pass. It is more likely that he wanted to put Republicans on record on the issue in order for the votes to be used in the 2016 campaign.

While all this was going on in D.C., California Gov. Jerry Brown—dealing with the aftermath of San Bernardino—said one of the weaknesses of gun control is differing state laws.

“California has some of the toughest gun control laws of any state, and Nevada and Arizona are wide open, so that’s a gigantic back door through which any terrorist can walk,” he told the Sacramento Bee.

Though some right wing sites claimed Brown was asserting that the San Bernardino guns were purchased in the two adjoining states, he did not say that. But his comments did throw a light on how porous some state laws are and on changing sentiments after the mass killings.

In Nevada, criminal and mental health background checks are required before purchases from licensed dealers. No such checks are needed for gun show and private purchases.

An initiative petition to mandate background checks on private and gun show firearms purchases has qualified for the Nevada ballot after receiving 242 percent of the needed 102,000 signatures. It is sponsored by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and has been endorsed by appointed Nevada Board of Education president Elaine Wynn and the Las Vegas Sun. It is opposed by Nevadans for State Gun Rights and the Nevada Firearms Coalition.