The Congressional 'Dance' on Gun Control

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, to in
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, to introduce legislation on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition feeding devices. Congressional Democrats are reintroducing legislation to ban assault weapons but the measure faces long odds even after last month's mass school shooting in Newtown, Conn. The measure being unveiled Thursday is authored by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who wrote the original assault weapons ban. That law expired in 2004 when Congress refused to renew it under pressure from the National Rifle Association. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

It's usually called "lobbying" but as Eric Redman suggested in his book The Dance of Legislation a half century ago, those who try to influence lawmaking -- congressmen and their staffs, constituents, advocates -- are more like choreographers. They're all desperately trying to make the dance go their way. And so are those trying to stop the dance from going anywhere.

These days I'm walking the congressional corridors as a volunteer advocate for gun control, helping an impressive coalition of mayors, police leaders, clergy and even a handful of sportsmen groups push for an assault weapons ban, a limit on high magazine guns and other critical reforms.

If you listen to the TV talking heads, you'll hear that "Newtown changed everything" and passage of a tough gun control package is virtually guaranteed.

Indeed, on any day you stroll through Hill office buildings, you come upon press conferences -- police and preachers and urban leaders speaking proudly about how they're organizing to get real gun control through Congress.

But my sense is that this dance is not going well for us. My experience in my four terms in Congress and more than twenty years rounding up votes for private sector and non-profit clients tells me that our side is not really in charge of the choreography. It's in the hands of those trying to stop the dance.

Even in an institution where retreat from short-lived outrage and determination to change things is manifest, this evolving surrender -- just weeks after the massacre of small children -- is stunning. One day it's the liberal chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee introducing an already-watered-down bill that seeks only to strengthen background checks. The next it's our earnest Vice President in Richmond for a "pro-gun-control" event where he, too, never mentions assault weapons. And then we see the look of defeat on the face of gun control's biggest advocate, Senator Dianne Feinstein, when she's asked if her comprehensive bill has a good chance of passage. Meanwhile, the sound of Democrats running for the hills for fear of losing their seats in 2014 is unmistakable. Congressmen and Senators, who vowed to support tough measures, return from their first trip home post-Newtown to say they are now "studying" the issue.

For me, this dance-gone-wrong on guns spans decades. It goes back to my eight years in Congress representing 50 western Connecticut towns, including Newtown.

When the national media discovered Newtown, they rightly called it "bucolic" and the "typical" New England town. But for me, Newtown was an anomaly. I vividly recall looking forward to going to the local high school to speak with students and how animated and idealistic they were. But I also dreaded returning to that same auditorium for a weekend meeting with constituents. In those "congressional town meetings," the radical fringe of the pro-gun community dominated.

That was just about the time, in the late 1970s, that the extremists in the NRA took control of the debate. These were not primarily sportsmen, but rather the fanatic fringe who saw guns (the more lethal the better) as protecting them from a government assault.

When I gave up that politically "safe" seat after four terms and narrowly lost a US Senate race, the NRA was instrumental in my defeat. And today, thirty years later, the organization is more extreme, better funded and more intimidating to politicians than it was then. Have we ever seen an interest group heap such scorn on a popular president and vice president, to say nothing of a solid majority of the American people?

For the past twenty years I've been in the middle of a lot of legislative battles. Most recently, I worked with a coalition of New York City contractors, police and fire unions, Mayor Bloomberg and health care providers, pushing for a bill providing benefits to sick people who had volunteered at Ground Zero after 9/11.

We won, but it took us five years. That dance had many twists and turns, stops and starts. And we weren't fighting the NRA and its gun maker patrons. And voting for health care benefits for heroes wasn't nearly as politically dangerous as crossing angry gun owners who detest government.

Still, this fight can be won. This dance can be done. It just won't happen quickly. Not this year and not in this session of Congress. Sure, something will be passed to go along with the executive orders that the President so rightly issued. But it will be more Congress creating an illusion of action than tough action itself.

This fight will more likely be won because of what this generation at Newtown High School does in the years ahead than because of what their parents--and the rest of us--do now. It will require those clergy in our coalition to preach about what one recently called the "religiously repugnant behavior" of the pro-assault weapon crowd. It will require taking names of lawmakers who resist limits on guns and backing reform candidates to defeat them.

This, too, will be a dance, but it will be more like a dance marathon.

Toby Moffett is a former Congressman from Connecticut and the current Chairman of the Moffett Group in Washington, D.C.