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Thwarted before, advocates of gun background checks now hopeful

Virginia Tech shooting survivor Colin Goddard attends a White House event during which U.S. President Barack Obama unveiled a series of gun
Virginia Tech shooting survivor Colin Goddard attends a White House event during which U.S. President Barack Obama unveiled a series of gun

By Susan Cornwell and Tabassum Zakaria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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 House.

The bill's backers said lawmakers from both parties feared the political clout of the principal gun lobby, the National Rifle Association.

"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."

STILL GUN-SHY?

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 autobiography.

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.

LOPSIDED LOBBYING

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 ($80,000).

PAST PROPOSALS

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 similar fate.

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."

(Additional reporting By Marcus Stern. Editing by Warren Strobel and Doina Chiacu)

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