Gun control is watered down in Senate before debate begins

People who thought the car- nage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was going to spur Congress toward tough new gun controls — or even the reinstatement of some expired gun controls, — are learning some new political realities.

Where the assassination of President John F. Kennedy brought legislation on mail-order gun sales, and the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan resulted in passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act, it appears that the legislative reaction to Newtown will be not a bang but a whimper.

It appears that the most hat gun-control advocates can expect to see in Senate legislation will be a broadening of background checks on those who purchase firearms in an effort to keep guns from criminals, people with serious mental problems and others considered potentially dangerous.

None of that would have kept the mother of Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza from purchasing the semiautomatic assault-style rifle or the 30-round capacity magazines he used to massacre 20 elementary school children and six educators.

We will grant that banning assault weapons would not materially affect access of Lanza’s mother or anyone else to weapons capable of inflicting heavy damage on a shooter’s targets. The differences between semiautomatic hunting rifles and semiautomatic assault-style rifles are largely cosmetic.

But an argument can be made that restricting magazine size to 10 rounds at least has the potential for slowing a madman down by forcing him to carry more magazines and to change them more often. That may be little consolation, but comes at little cost. Not having access to larger magazines does very little to lessen the ability of any gun owner to protect himself or herself or to enjoy hunting or sport shooting.

Counting heads

But Senate majority Leader Harry Reid predicted that the more stringent legislation championed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., would have likely received only 40 Democratic votes and no Republican votes. Such is the power of the gun lobby, especially in red states now served by Democratic senators.

Those who thought that pictures of 20 young gun victims — such as were displayed in a front-page layout by the New York Daily News the other day — were going to change the politics of gun control have been quickly disabused.

They can hope for stronger background checks and anticipate some increased funding for school security and, perhaps, for mental health screening. Beyond that, they will only be able to take solace in the possibility that the debate that will be taking place in Congress will set the stage for more meaningful reform at some future date. But the horrifying reality is that stricter controls are only likely if there is yet another mass murder involving large-capacity magazines such as those used at the Newtown school and the Aurora, Colo., theater, where James Holmes killed 12 people and wounded 58 others.

That is too high a price to even contemplate.