Opinion: Senators confront history and politics on guns

Key Senators from each party said many of the right things this week as they struggled to find common ground on one of the more divisive issues in American politics — how to deal with gun violence.

Pressing for action after a mass shooting at a New York grocery store and a massacre at a Texas elementary school, Senators are trying to forge a gun-violence package by possibly combining some gun law changes with mental health support, plus aid to bolster security at local schools.

Like most members of Congress, Georgia lawmakers are on the sidelines for these talks, waiting to see what kind of deal — if any — might be produced in the coming days.

“It’s time to act,” said U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta.

But the truth is the approval of substantive gun legislation very rarely happens on Capitol Hill ― you can pretty much count the bills on one hand in the past 50-plus years — and that action happens only after extensive political negotiation.

For example, it took the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy to finally spur action on the Gun Control Act of 1968.

25 years later in 1993, Senators brokered a deal on what we know as the Brady Law. It started as a five-day waiting period on handgun purchases and ultimately created the current federal background check system for gun purchasers.

At about the same time, Congress was trying to rein in assault weapons. That effort grew out of a 1989 attack on an elementary school in Stockton, California — where a gunman armed with a semi-automatic rifle killed five kids and wounded 32 others.

It led to the most surprising vote in my time covering Congress — on May 23, 1990 — when the Senate voted 52-48 to restrict the import and manufacture of assault weapons in a larger anti-crime bill. It was a very rare defeat for the NRA.

Three years later, Congress voted to approve a 10-year ban on certain assault weapons. That expired in 2004.

After Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994, many blamed the voter backlash in part on that assault weapons vote – one reason why no major gun control legislation has been approved in the last 28 years.

Since the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, lawmakers have tried repeatedly to expand background checks on gun sales – in order to close loopholes in the Brady Law instant check system.

But those initiatives have routinely hit a wall in the U.S. Senate, mainly opposed by Republicans.

Can Senators strike a deal this time on gun violence? History might not be on their side.

Jamie Dupree has covered national politics and the Congress from Washington, D.C. since the Reagan administration. His column appears weekly in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. For more, check out his Capitol Hill newsletter at http://jamiedupree.substack.com