Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy

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Tim Murphy is a senior reporter in MoJo's DC bureau. His writing has been featured in Slate and the Washington Monthly. Email him with tips and insights at tmurphy [at] motherjones [dot] com.

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6 Things We Learned at the Senate's Big Guns Hearing

| Wed Jan. 30, 2013 2:51 PM EST

Mark Kelly and Wayne LaPierre agree on something. At Wednesday's much-anticipated Senate judiciary committee hearing on gun violence—featuring former astronaut Mark Kelly, Baltimore police chief John Johnson, NRA head Wayne LaPierre, and others—the fireworks, such as they were, erupted over background checks and high-capacity magazines. But on mental health, a significant element of President Barack Obama's gun control package, there appeared to be some agreement. Here's Kelly on the Tucson shooter who tried to kill his wife, Gabby Giffords: "He had never been legally adjudicated as mentally ill, and, even if he had, Arizona at the time had over 121,000 records of disqualifying mental illness it had not submitted to the background check system." And here's Wayne LaPierre: "We need to look at the full range of mental health issues, from early detection and treatment, to civil commitment laws, to privacy laws that needlessly prevent mental health records from being included in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System."

Republican Texas Sen. John Cornyn (among others) lamented the failure of state agencies to turn over mental health records to the NICBS, and suggested it might be worth examining the ease with which the outpatient mentally ill can obtain weapons. Still, it was unclear how far LaPierre would go to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, given that he generally opposed more expansive and effective background checks.

When Gabby Giffords speaks, you should listen. The former Arizona congresswoman paused for seven seconds before reading a statement that was only 62 words. Here it is:

Chuck Grassley is okay with the CDC studying guns after all. Maybe. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) used his opening statement to challenge the president's complaint that Congress had prohibited the Centers for Disease Control from researching gun deaths. "Contrary to what you may have heard, Congress has never prohibited CDC from researching gun violence," Grassley said. "Rather, Congress prevented federal research to 'advocate or promote gun control,' which some government researchers had been doing under the guise of taxpayer supported science. Had Congress actually prohibited gun violence research, the president could not legally have directed CDC to conduct that research."

But that's not what Grassley has been saying for the last two weeks. On January 15, when President Obama announced his plans to direct the CDC to renew its research into gun violence, the senator's spokesman noted that funding restrictions enacted by Congress "effectively keeps [the CDC] from conducting any research or analysis related to gun violence." On Tuesday, Grassley took to the floor of the Senate to hammer Obama's CDC directive, arguing that "gun violence is not a disease, and lawful gun ownership is not a disease."

So is this a new position? I've reached out to Grassley's office for a response and will update if I hear back.

Lindsey Graham thinks the AR-15 will replace cops. The South Carolina GOPer—who originally planned on bringing unloaded guns to the hearing—lamented the fact that state budget cuts have forced municipalities to downsize their police departments. But according to Graham, that doesn't mean the federal government should pick up the tab or communities should shift their priorities. Instead, it means, for Graham, that the AR-15 rifle (the kind used by Newtown shooter Adam Lanza) has become a more viable alternative for self-defense. Graham also asserted that semi-automatic weapons could come in quite handy in the event that one's neighborhood is taken over by "marauding gangs" following a natural disaster. (LaPierre referred to the need to survive a "riot.") "I own an AR-15," Graham told the panel. And so should you.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives may as well not exist. In the first three hours of the hearing, the word "ATF" came up only once, even as Republican senators and key witnesses (LaPierre most frequently) griped about the failure of the federal government to enforce existing gun laws. What they didn't mention was the role they'd played in making that impossible—by curbing funding for the ATF and handicapping enforcement.

Ladies love the AR-15! The women with yellow-and-black "Stop Gun Violence Now" stickers snickered when Gayle Trotter, a senior fellow at the conservative Independent Women's Forum, reported, "Young women are speaking out as to why AR-15's are their weapons of choice!" They laughed a bit louder when Trotter asserted, "I speak on behalf of millions of American women." At a hearing where even the normally bombastic LaPierre seemed to have missed his morning coffee, Trotter's call to put more assault weapons in the hands of young mothers with babies may have been as close as the hearing came to pyrotechnics. Here's the video, via TPM:

 

 

Other people that love the AR-15: bros, small children, and people who hunt pigs.

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Republicans Urge Party to Become More Open, Ignore Major Newspapers

| Tue Jan. 29, 2013 11:53 AM EST
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

Ted Cruz had some advice for House Republicans on Saturday: "Stop reading the New York Times."

Cruz, a freshman Republican senator from Texas, was at speaking at the National Review Institute Summit in Washington, a gathering hosted by a magazine that has dubbed him, at various points, the "Michael Phelps" of public speaking and "the next great conservative hope." For three days, Republican heavyweights, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, gathered to ruminate on what had gone wrong in November—and what the party can do to right the ship.

At times, the assembled conservative elites tried introspection. The New Republic's Alec MacGillis rounded up 10 such moments from the summit, including notable revelations suchs as "the financial collapse was kind of a big deal," "the voter-fraud bogeyman was a distraction," and "[l]iving without health insurance is a bummer." These are all true. There was even some self-flagellation: Joe Scarborough, the former Republican congressman turned MSNBC host, eviscerated GOPers for shunning empiciricism during the campaign and for embracing Wall Street. Scarborough wondered why not a single Republican presidential candidate came out in favor of "breaking up the banks." (For more on the intraparty wrestling match, see Slate's Dave Weigel.)

But calls for reform were often countered by a renewed quest for purity. There was Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and a regular on Fox News, who called the idea of female soldiers serving in combat "literally nuts" (editor's note: not literally) and, channeling William F. Buckley, urged Republian senators to stand atop* the wall of history, shouting "Stop!" John Podhoretz of Commentary magazine spent time rehashing his grievances about Georgetown Law School student Sandra Fluke. The American Enterprise Institute's Michael Barone—speaking at an all-white panel called "Do Demographics Doom the Right?"—referred to the peculiar new breed of pro-Obama single women as "the Lena Dunham generation," a nod to the Girls creator who famously invented contraception.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, an architect of the campaign against the Affordable Care Act and Obama's EPA, echoed Cruz's call to unsubscribe from the nation's top newspaper. Rep. Tom Cotton, a rising star from Arkansas, didn't urge attendees to unsubscribe from the Times, but perhaps only because he didn't need to, having previously called for its reporters to be thrown in prison. (Cotton also suggested his party didn't need to change its approach on gay rights, because the string of marriage equality successes in November were probably fleeting.)

Kristol and Podhoretz's comments, as well as Scarborough's tough critique, came at a panel called "What is wrong with the Right?" Thoughtful as the speakers were, the question seemed to answer itself. The five panelists (moderator Reihan Salam not included) were all white males—as was everyone who asked a question.

Then there was Cruz, who hammered Mitt Romney for his 47 percent remarks while asserting, as he has done regularly since the election, that the GOP needs to be "the party of the 47 percent"—not by embracing a new set of policies, but by changing its rhetoric. Even as the movement's elders wrestled openly with where the Republican party is headed, they offered a strikingly familiar road map.

So they beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into their gaffes.

*Update: I'm informed the word I was looking for here was "athwart."

Sen. Ron Johnson: We're Living in Atlas Shrugged

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 3:45 PM EST
Sen. Ron Johnson (right) poses in front of a statue of Atlas.

Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican best known for sparring with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at last week's Benghazi hearings, says the United States is currently living out the plot of the Ayn Rand novel Atlas Shrugged. In an interview with the Rand-inspired Atlas Society, Johnson said he "absolutely" sees parallels between the American economy today and the novel in which government regulations drive prominent businessmen to retreat into a secluded gulch in protest. 

As Johnson explains in the interview, his affinity for Rand has literally been set in stone—the former PACUR* CEO helped a friend install a statute of Atlas in Oshkosh, Wis. "There was a big old statue on the side of the road for sale, and it was Atlas," Johnson says. "It had the world, it was obviously the Atlas Shrugged symbol, and he was thinking about buying it and I said, absolutely, I'll pay for half of it." Then they set it up outside his friend's construction business. (Update: this business.)

Watch:

"It's a real concern," Johnson said, when asked if he saw examples of the private sector "shrugging"—that is, wilting under the pressure of government regulations. "As I talk to business owners that maybe started their businesses in the '70s and '80s, they tell me, with today's level of taxation and regulation, there's no way I can start my business today."

Johnson isn't the only Wisconsin Republican to lavish praise on Rand. Rep. Paul Ryan once called her "required reading" (also at a speech at the Atlas Society) before later backtracking.

*This post originally misstated the name of Johnson's company.

The Assault Weapons Ban Just Doesn't Have the Votes

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 3:53 PM EST

Sen. Dianne Feinstein's (D-Calif.) new assault weapons ban legislation has many features the original 1994 law lacked—most notably, it closes loopholes that allowed manufacturers to produce de-facto assault weapons, and it eliminates the sunset provision, meaning the new version wouldn't expire after 10 years as the first one did. But according to Bloomberg, AWB 2.0 is missing one key thing that the original had—votes:

A proposed ban on sales of assault weapons would be defeated in the U.S. Senate today unless some members changed their current views, based on a Bloomberg review of recent lawmaker statements and interviews.

At least six of the chamber’s 55 Democrats have recently expressed skepticism or outright opposition to a ban, the review found. That means Democrats don’t have a simple 51-vote majority to pass the measure, let alone the 60 votes needed to break a Republican filibuster to bring it to a floor vote.

...The five Democratic senators from traditionally pro-gun states who've recently expressed skepticism about the bill are Max Baucus and Jon Tester of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Independent Senator Angus King of Maine, who is caucusing with Democrats, also said he opposes a ban.

This isn't exactly surprising. On Sunday, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wy.) predicted the ban wouldn't even come up for a vote. For gun control advocates, the question going forward may be just how much capital they want to invest in what's looking like an uphill battle—especially given the uncertain effects of the initial ban.

Dianne Feinstein Tries to Unsuck the Assault Weapons Ban

| Thu Jan. 24, 2013 2:07 PM EST

The problems with the 1994 assault weapons ban, according to its supporters, were twofold. The first was that gunmakers could—and did—simply modify their semiautomatic weapons to fit the law by eliminating cosmetic features. An AR-15 without a bayonet mount is still an AR-15; it's just marginally less effective in hand-to-hand combat with Redcoats. That second problem with the ban was that it ended, sunsetting in 2004.

At a Capitol Hill press conference on Thursday to introduce new legislation banning assault weapons, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) promised that she and her colleagues had learned from their mistakes. "One criticism of the '94 law was that it was a two-characteristic test that defined [an assault weapon]," Feinstein said. "And that was too easy to work around. Manufacturers could simply remove one of the characteristics, and the firearm was legal. The bill we are introducting today will make it much more difficult to work around by moving a one-characteristic test."

And unlike AWB 1.0, Feinstein explained, this one wouldn't expire in 10 years: "No weapon is taken from anyone," she said, but "the purpose of this bill is to dry up the supply of these weapons overtime, therefore there is no sunset on this bill."

Feinstein's bill, like the original version, includes a ban on the manufacture and importation of high-capacity magazines, defined as any feeding container holding more than 10 bullets—something gun-control advocates point to as one of the success stories in the 1994 law. It would also close a loophole that legalized the slide iron stock, which as my colleague Dana Liebelson reported, allows gun-owners to convert their firearms into fully-automatics weapons—legally.

But the package faces stiff opposition, including from some Democrats. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) recently lamented "one-size-fits-all directives from Washington," and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), who initially seemed receptive to limits on assault weapons and high-capacity clips, has since clammed up.

Even if Feinstein's bill does make it through Congress, though, there's still an open question as to what it would actually accomplish. Although Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) suggested on Thursday that the ban might have saved "hundreds of thousands" of lives had it never gone away, a 2004 University of Pennsylvania study commissioned by Department of Justice was much more reserved: "We cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation's recent drop in gun violence. And, indeed, there has been no discernible reduction in the lethality and injuriousness of gun violence."

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