Fearing Obama Agenda, States Push to Loosen Gun Laws
When President Obama took office, gun rights advocates sounded the alarm, warning that he intended to strip them of their arms and ammunition.
And yet the opposite is happening. Mr. Obama has been largely silent on the issue while states are engaged in a new and largely successful push for expanded gun rights, even passing measures that have been rejected in the past.
In Virginia, the General Assembly approved a bill last week that allows people to carry concealed weapons in bars and restaurants that serve alcohol, and the House of Delegates voted to repeal a 17-year-old ban on buying more than one handgun a month. The actions came less than three years after the shootings at Virginia Tech that claimed 33 lives and prompted a major national push for increased gun control.
Arizona and Wyoming lawmakers are considering nearly a half dozen pro-gun measures, including one that would allow residents to carry concealed weapons without a permit. And lawmakers in Montana and Tennessee passed measures last year - the first of their kind - to exempt their states from federal regulation of firearms and ammunition that are made, sold and used in state. Similar bills have been proposed in at least three other states.
In the meantime, gun control advocates say, Mr. Obama has failed to deliver on campaign promises to close a loophole that allows unlicensed dealers at gun shows to sell firearms without background checks; to revive the assault weapons ban; and to push states to release data about guns used in crimes.
He also signed bills last year allowing guns to be carried in national parks and in luggage on Amtrak trains.
"We expected a very different picture at this stage," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun control group that last month issued a report card failing the administration in all seven of the group's major indicators.
Gun control advocates have had some successes recently, Mr. Helmke said. Proposed bills to allow students to carry guns on college campuses have been blocked in the 20 or so states where they have been proposed since the Virginia Tech shootings. Last year, New Jersey limited gun purchases to one a month, a law similar to the one Virginia may revoke.
But recent setbacks to gun control have been many.
Last month, the Indiana legislature passed bills that block private employers from forbidding workers to keep firearms in their vehicles on company property.
Gun rights supporters also showed their strength last year by blocking legislation to give District of Columbia residents a full vote in Congress by attaching an amendment to repeal Washington's ban on handguns.
Asked by reporters about the Brady group's critical report on the Obama administration, a White House spokesman, Ben LaBolt, pointed out that the latest F.B.I. statistics showed that violent crime dropped in the first half of 2009 to its lowest levels since the 1960s.
"The president supports and respects the Second Amendment," Mr. LaBolt said, "and he believes we can take common-sense steps to keep our streets safe and to stem the flow of illegal guns to criminals."
Still, gun rights groups remain skeptical of the administration.
"The watchword for gun owners is stay ready," said Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association. "We have had some successes, but we know that the first chance Obama gets, he will pounce on us."
That Mr. Obama signed legislation allowing guns in national parks and on Amtrak trains should not be seen as respect for the Second Amendment, Mr. LaPierre said. The two measures had been attached as amendments to larger pieces of legislation - a bill cracking down on credit card companies and a transportation appropriations bill, respectively - that the president wanted passed, Mr. LaPierre said.
Regardless of Mr. Obama's agenda, gun dealers seem to be reaping the benefits of fears surrounding it.
Federal background checks for gun purchases rose to 14 million in 2009, up from 12.7 million in 2008 and 11.2 million in 2007. But from November 2009 to January 2010, the number of background checks fell 12 percent, compared with the same months a year earlier.
In Virginia, the success of new pro-gun laws is partly a result of the Republican Party's taking the governor's office after eight years of Democratic control.
A major setback for state gun control advocates was this week's House vote repealing the one-gun-per-month law, which was passed in 1993 under Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat, and has long been upheld as the state's signature gun control restriction.
Supporters of limiting gun purchases to one a month said the law was important to avoid Virginia's becoming the East Coast's top gun-running hub. Opponents dismissed the concern.
"We shouldn't get rid of our Second Amendment rights because some people in New York City want to abuse theirs," Robert G. Marshall, a Republican delegate from Manassas who supported repeal of the one-gun-a-month limit, told reporters.
Gun control advocates hoped to win new restrictions after the Virginia Tech massacre on April 16, 2007, in which a student, Seung-Hui Cho, shot and killed 32 people before turning a gun on himself.
After the shooting, Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, pushed for stronger gun control measures. But last year the legislature rejected a bill requiring background checks for private sales at gun shows and repealed a law that Mr. Kaine had supported to prohibit anyone from carrying concealed weapons into a club or restaurant where alcohol is served.
In previous years, the guns-in-bars bill cleared both chambers but was vetoed by Mr. Kaine. But the new governor, Robert F. McDonnell, has said he supports the measure.
Virginia is also considering a measure adopted in Montana and Tennessee that declares that firearms made and retained in-state are beyond the authority of Congress. The measure is primarily a challenge to Congress's power to regulate commerce among the states.
The Montana law is being challenged in federal court, and the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has sent a letter to Tennessee and Montana gun dealers stating that federal law supersedes the state measure.