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OPINION: NRA dominating gun-safety forces in Congress

WASHINGTON -- As gun-safety forces in Congress push for new curbs on gun rights, with the first round of votes soon to begin, they are haunted by a record of nearly total failure over the past generation in legislative battles with the National R...

WASHINGTON -- As gun-safety forces in Congress push for new curbs on gun rights, with the first round of votes soon to begin, they are haunted by a record of nearly total failure over the past generation in legislative battles with the National Rifle Association.

The last time they prevailed over the NRA in a major federal policy fight was in 1994, when President Bill Clinton signed into law a ban on the sale and manufacture of high-capacity ammunition clips and certain models of assault weapons. This followed their success a year earlier in gaining enactment of "the Brady bill," a measure requiring a five-day wait for handgun purchases and establishing a national database of criminals.

But over the past 20 years, the NRA and its congressional allies have dominated the legislative process when it comes to firearms, adding several of their measures to the U.S. code while turning back every bill or amendment viewed as a threat to gun rights and challenging judicial nominees seen as wobbly on the Second Amendment.

Between 1995-2011, Congress voted into law measures that stripped the District of Columbia government of most its gun controls; awarded firearms manufacturers broad immunity against lawsuits; authorized airline pilots to carry firearms in the cockpit; allowed those in bankruptcy to keep possession of up to three firearms; authorized private citizens to carry guns on Amtrak and in national parks and permitted firearms sales over the Internet.

After Congress conducted no gun votes in 2012, the Senate last month handed the NRA a victory by blocking President Obama's nomination of Caitlin J. Halligan for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. She crossed the NRA in 2003 by asserting that gun manufacturers could be sued for the misuse of their products by third parties. She was solicitor general for New York State at the time.

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And in policy wins occurring without benefit of record votes and the accompanying public scrutiny, NRA-backed lawmakers in recent years have hemmed in the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco by steps such as limiting its budget, restricting its ability to gather records of gun sales and refusing to allow the Senate to confirm an AFT director.

This year, Congress - or at least the Democratic-controlled Senate -- is taking another serious look at federal measures to reduce gun violence, acting in large part in response to the massacre last December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in which a gunman used a Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle, holding 30-bullet magazines, to kill 20 young children and six teachers.

The Senate is expected by mid-April to take up bills that would expand background checks to cover nearly all gun sales and crack down on straw purchasers who buy guns for criminals. Senators may also vote on whether to reinstate the ban on assault weapons and limits on the size of magazines.

"Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress," President Obama told lawmakers in his State of the Union address in February. "If you want to vote 'no,' that's your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote. Because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun."

In response, the NRA said "when you listen to (Obama) talk about new gun laws, you may think he sounds reasonable. But what happens when you look at the details behind the president's policies?" The assault weapons ban, the NRA continued, "will not work without mandatory gun confiscation and universal background checks will not work without requiring national gun registration."

Senators such as Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, say they will lead a filibuster to keep the Senate from even starting debate on the package. In the GOP-controlled House, leaders have been non-committal on whether they would bring to the floor any bills sent over by the Senate.

Since passage of the assault-weapons ban in 1994, the House and Senate have conducted at least 48 substantive votes on gun issues, with lawmakers aligned with the NRA winning about 80 percent of the time. On those rare occasions when a pro-control measure passed one chamber or the other, it was eliminated later in the legislative process.

The following report spotlights some of the most prominent gun votes in Congress over the past 10 years, with the votes of South Dakota's current congressional delegates.

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HOUSE

Concealed-Carry Laws: The House on Nov. 16, 2011, voted, 272-154, to make it easier for individuals to carry concealed, loaded handguns while traveling in other states. Overriding states' rights, the bill (HR 822) sought to impose a national standard on the existing patchwork of state laws on concealed handguns. A yes vote was to allow the concealed-carry law of one's home state to pre-empt any stricter laws in other states.

Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D.: Yea

States' Rights v. Gun Rights: The House on Nov. 16, 2011, refused, 140-283, to preserve the reciprocity agreements by which 40 states allow visitors from another state to carry concealed guns if they meet the requirements of the host state. A yes vote was to preserve states' rights that would be overridden by HR 822 (above), a bill that would federalize the states' concealed-carry laws into a uniform national standard.

Noem: Nay

SENATE

Caitlin Halligan Nomination: The Senate on March 6, 2013, failed, 51-41, to reach 60 votes for ending a Republican filibuster against the nomination of Caitlin J. Halligan to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Halligan, 45, is general counsel for the New York County District Attorney's Office in Manhattan. A yes vote backed Halligan over National Rifle Association criticism of her views on gun manufacturers' legal liability. This was the second Senate vote in 15 months to block her nomination. She has since withdrawn her name from consideration. A yes vote was to confirm Halligan.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.: Nay

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Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D.: Yea

Gun Records in Property Searches: Voting 85-10, the Senate on May 26, 2011, tabled (killed) an amendment to exempt firearms records from property searches conducted under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. The vote occurred during debate on a bill (S 990) to extend certain sections of the act until June 2015. A yes vote was to subject firearms records to USA Patriot Act searches.

Thune: Yea

Johnson: Yea

Concealed-Carry Laws: Voting 58-39, the Senate on July 22, 2009, failed to reach 60 votes needed to advance an amendment making it easier for individuals to carry concealed, loaded handguns while traveling in other states. The measure sought to impose what amounted to a national standard on the existing patchwork of state laws on concealed handguns. It did so by enabling the concealed- carry law of the individual's home state to pre-empt any stricter laws he or she encounters in other states. A yes vote backed the gun-rights amendment.

Thune: Yea

Johnson: Yea

Gun Rights in National Parks: The Senate on May 12. 2009, voted, 67-29, to affirm Bush administration regulations ensuring the right to bear loaded guns in national parks and the National Wildlife Refuge System. The amendment to HR 627 sought to blunt a federal judge's recent ruling to block those regulations. A yes vote backed the gun-rights amendment.

Thune: Yea

Johnson: Nay

Repeal of D.C. Gun Laws: The Senate on Feb. 26, 2009, voted, 62-36, to deny the District of Columbia government authority to enact restrictive gun laws. In part, this amendment to S 160 sought to repeal laws such as D.C.'s prohibition of gun ownership by persons voluntarily committed to mental institutions and the city's bans on armor-piercing sniper rifles and military-style, semi-automatic assault weapons. The amendment also sought to repeal the city's ban on individuals younger than 21 possessing firearms as well as a federal law to bar gun trafficking across state lines. A yes vote was to void several D.C. gun laws.

Thune: Yea

Johnson: Yea

Guns in Disaster Zones: Voting 84-16, the Senate on July 13, 2006, passed an amendment to bar law enforcement officials and other first responders from seizing citizens' firearms in officially declared disaster zones such as New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. A yes vote was to add the amendment to the fiscal 2007 budget (HR 5441) for the Department of Homeland Security.

Thune: Yea

Johnson: Yea

Gun Manufacturers' Immunity: The Senate on July 29, 2005, passed, 65-31, a bill (S 397) giving firearms manufacturers, dealers, distributors and importers immunity from being sued by victims of gun violence committed by a third party unless it is shown they have violated a criminal law. The bill, which applied to pending as well as future suits in federal and state courts, did not prohibit suits based on defects in the design or manufacture of the firearm. A yes vote was to pass the bill.

Thune: Yea

Johnson: Yea

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