The US Senate has voted to debate new gun control legislation for the first time in nearly two decades. It might seem like a small step, but it should not be underestimated, say gun policy experts.
"This is not my bill," said President Barack Obama in response to Thursday's (11.04.2013) long-awaited vote on gun control in the Senate. But like many people, his disappointment at the diluted bill being presented to Congress was balanced by relief that gun control was finally going to be discussed at all.
"We don't have to agree on everything to know that we've got to do something to stem the tide of gun violence," the president's written statement continued, hinting at all the proposals he had made and which had to be dropped to find a bipartisan compromise that had a chance of being passed in the vote.
While Obama wanted the bill to include a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines, in the end he and the Democrats had to settle for expanded background checks for gun shows and online sales.
Despite that, the media was able to hail the bill as the United States' most ambitious gun safety legislation in almost two decades - since 1994, to be precise, when certain assault rifles were banned - legislation that was allowed to lapse under President George W. Bush.
But on Thursday, as relatives of the 20 children killed in Newtown, Connecticut watched from the visitors' galleries, years of Senate refusal to address gun laws in the United States were swept aside, along with recent Republican obstruction.
"It's a baby-step forward," said Professor Mary Stange of Skidmore College. "Universal background checks are supported by the majority of Americans, and I think if it's done correctly, it will accomplish more than merely closing the gun show loophole."
Nick of time
It was a victory for Obama, as many had thought that his moment to pursue new gun control legislation was slipping away. It has been four months since the Newtown massacre, and there was a growing sense that the opportunity it provided had been successfully stymied by the National Rifle Association and hard-line Republicans.
For a long time, it seemed that the pro-control lobby would not be able to get the 60 Senate votes they needed to force a decision, especially after five Republican senators vowed to filibuster the legislation just a few weeks ago. In the end, thanks to a compromise hammered out by Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Patrick Toomey, the watered-down proposal won by 68 votes to 31.
Stange suggests that the opposition to the assault weapons ban was actually no great loss to the Democrats. "I do not favor an assault weapons ban, I don't think it's a very well-written piece of legislation," she told DW. "The data was that the assault weapons ban of '94 didn't have that much of an impact when it came to reducing crime. Most criminals use handguns."
But Professor Robert J. Spitzer of the State University of New York and author of "The Politics of Gun Control," thinks that an assault weapons ban would make sense despite the statistics. "A majority of the mass shootings that have occurred in the last 30 years in America have involved assault weapons," he told DW. "They have been a weapon of choice for mass shooters, and they have also been a weapon of choice for gangs, drug dealers and 10 to 20 percent of American police officers shot and killed in the line of duty in recent years have been shot and killed with assault-type weapons."
Not far enough for some, too far for others
To Europeans, agonizing over whether to ban what are patently extremely dangerous automatic weapons from being circulated in the public domain seems baffling, but Professor Kristin Goss, who specializes in gun policy at Duke University, points out that the discourse is very different in the US.
"You have to understand that background checks are the centerpiece [for pro-control advocates]," she said. "If you were to go to Frankfurt airport and there are two lines - there's a security line where you have to go through a metal detector and put your bag on a belt, and there's another line where you get to walk straight to your gate, and you get to choose what line you're in. That's the way our gun system works in the vast majority of states. What the background check proposal is trying to do is make more people go through the security line."
Background checks currently apply only to guns sold by the country's 55,000 licensed gun dealers, and the bill about to be debated by the Senate falls short of the universal background check system sought by Obama, which was opposed by scores of lawmakers - including some Democrats from pro-gun states.
On the other hand it strengthens existing law to require checks for sales at gun shows and online stores. It would still allow gun sales between relatives and friends to continue without such safeguards, however.
Unsurprisingly, the gun lobby quickly condemned the compromise: "This bill is a clear overreach that will predominantly punish and harass our neighbors, friends, and family," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
As the Senate debate is likely to play out for several months, it's almost anyone's guess what proposals and compromises will be able on the table by the time it is voted on. "The bill introduced was just a place-holder," said Goss. "Don't focus too much on that - it's going to change. The meaning from yesterday is that they voted to actually have a debate about gun policy in America. For gun reform advocates, there's no way to read that other than: it was a good day."