STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
After a massacre at Columbine High School eight years ago this week, there were dramatic calls for Congress to pass stronger gun control laws. For better or worse, it didn't happen. In the years that followed, the Republican-controlled Congress did more to relax gun laws than anything else. Now, after the shooting at Virginia Tech, one question is what the new Democratic Congress might do.
NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.
ANDREA SEABROOK: New York Democrat Charlie Rangel was the headliner at the National Press Club luncheon yesterday, talking about the war, and taxes, and his work as a powerful committee chairman. But when he was asked whether the Virginia Tech massacre would change the political debate on gun control, he sounded completely powerless.
CHARLIE RANGEL: I asked that question of a group of Democrats today, and the people that I expected to say no said no.
SEABROOK: In other words, lawmakers' positions are completely entrenched and not at all along party lines.
RANGEL: It's a regional thing. It's a cultural thing. And it's a sad thing but it's some type of a cult - don't touch; don't take the gun from my dead cold hands. And I don't understand it but obviously there is a political differences of opinion on that.
SEABROOK: Rangel may not understand it but some other Democrats do, especially those from rural districts where hunting is a family sport and firearms are thought of as tools.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)
SEABROOK: Members of Congress shuffle along a dark hallway in the basement of the Capitol building, coming out of the first Democratic caucus meeting since their spring break. They were supposed to talk about taxes and the agenda but instead, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi put it, the shooting cast a pall over everything.
NANCY PELOSI: When we're doing our legislative work, we'll do our legislative work. Right now, we spent a good deal of time talking about the tragedy and how members whose communities have experienced similar ones - for example, Columbine - could be a source of comfort to the people in Virginia.
SEABROOK: Pelosi is in a difficult position here. Some in her caucus, especially the newer Democrats that Pelosi likes to call the majority makers, are from rural or suburban areas where many consider gun ownership a personal right. I spoke with several Democrats in conservative districts, including Stephanie Herseth of South Dakota. She didn't want to be recorded but said she worries the Democrats will jump to an anti-gun stance too quickly, and any move to regulate firearms risks losing critical supporters in her district.
On the other hand, many in the party crave swift action to show that Democrats will not stand for this kind of terrible violence. This yearning is especially strong among people like New York's Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband was killed and son was severely injured in 1993 when a gunman entered their commuter train car and randomly sprayed bullets. McCarthy says she plans to push hard for what she calls common-sense gun restrictions like renewing the ban on assault weapons, but she acknowledged that it will be tough.
CAROLYN MCCARTHY: We're in charge now, and there is this myth out there that if Democrats stand up on reducing gun violence, the new members, especially the freshmen, will probably end up losing their seats.
SEABROOK: McCarthy called it a myth, but many Democrats remain wary of the pro-gun lobby's political power and the voters who support gun rights. The question now is whether seeing the senseless carnage at Virginia Tech changes anyone's mind about how easy it should be to own guns in America.
Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.
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