By Josh Richman and Rick Orlov
With Democrats promising to beef up federal gun laws, the renewed gun-control debate sparked by the horrific slayings in a Connecticut elementary school is beginning to play out in Congress. But a new survey of California's next congressional delegation signals the stark divide ahead: Calls for immediate and vigorous action on one side, and mostly silence on the other.
An exclusive survey of California members of the next Congress, undertaken by the Bay Area News Group and the Los Angeles News Group, found that all of the 32 House Democrats who responded support re-enacting some version of the federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004, and many would consider more stringent new gun controls.
No California Democrat said Americans have an absolute constitutional right to a weapon such as the .223 Bushmaster rifle and 30-round magazines that Adam Lanza used to execute 26 people -- including 20 children -- on Friday in Newtown, Conn. Some referred to such firearms as "weapons of war" that have no place in private ownership.
But the newspapers' survey found the state's Republican House members all but silent. Only one of the California's 15 GOP House members specifically answered the four questions posed by the newspapers: Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, took a stand against increased gun control.
Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, declined to discuss gun control until after a full investigation of Lanza's rampage is done. Rep.-elect Doug
LaMalfa, R-Oroville, said "restricting the rights of those who follow the law will only empower those who choose to break the law," but wouldn't answer specific questions. All other Republicans either were said to be unavailable for comment or never returned calls and emails. Thirty-two of the state's 38 House Democrats responded to the survey.
A handful of moderate, pro-gun Democrats around the nation in recent days have signaled new willingness to consider gun control. But in a closely-divided Congress, with Republicans holding a majority in the House of Representatives, it would take supporters in both parties to tighten U.S. gun laws that are some of the loosest among developed nations.
Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, said she's "deeply disappointed" by her Republican peers' reticence.
"Everyone feels hollowed out by this, and people really want to know where we stand," she said.
Backlash from the Newtown massacre continued Tuesday. President Barack Obama said he supports re-enactment of the federal assault weapons ban. Private equity firm Cerberus, in which the California State Teachers' Retirement System is an investor, said it will sell the parent company that makes the Bushmaster rifle used in the attack. And Dick's Sporting Goods, with more than 500 stores in 44 states, said it's suspending sales of some rifles.
The newspapers' survey also found Democrats gave mixed reviews to the idea of requiring background checks, including mental-health screening, for all members of a household where guns are kept; Lanza reportedly used weapons that were owned by his mother. Many were willing to discuss the idea of requiring gun owners to take courses, get licenses and register all firearms similar to what states already require for cars.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the California Democratic Congressional Delegation's chair, said her members want action.
"If Republicans want to change, we'll work with them," said Lofgren, D-San Jose, noting other mass shootings "didn't seem to move the dial on the other side of the aisle. I hope that something this appalling might stir my colleagues to action."
A CBS News poll in April had found 39 percent of adults nationwide believed gun control laws should be made more strict, 13 percent said they should be made less strict and 41 percent said they should be kept as they are; a new poll conducted Friday through Sunday found 57 percent now want stricter laws, 9 percent want less strict laws, and 30 percent say they should stay as they are.
Chuck Michel, attorney for the California Rifle and Pistol Association Foundation, said this isn't the right time to discuss reform. His organization -- the National Rifle Association's California affiliate -- will make its opinions known soon enough, he said, but for now won't engage in debate "out of respect and sympathy for the victims."
"Politicians pushing legislative wish lists so soon after the slayings are shameless opportunists taking advantage of an emotionally charged situation to advance a pre-existing agenda," he said.
The NRA said in a statement Tuesday that it's "shocked, saddened and heartbroken" by the Newtown slayings and is "prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again."
The NRA wields significant influence. The Sunlight Foundation -- a nonprofit, nonpartisan government transparency watchdog -- reports the NRA spent 73 times what the leading pro-gun control advocacy organization, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, spent on lobbying in the 112th Congress, and 3,199 times what the Brady Campaign spent on the 2012 election.
The NRA has "obstructed any kind of gun safety and gun control measures," said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland. "It's time to care more about our children, it's time to care more about our country than about a special interest group that really has been controlling the agenda."
The Democrats' agenda for now includes re-enacting an updated version of the federal assault weapons ban, to be introduced by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Feinstein's bill would ban more than 100 specific firearms plus others with certain features, as well as magazines holding more than 10 rounds; it would grandfather in any weapons legally owned when the law is enacted. The 1994 version was written to sunset in 2004, and Republicans have consistently opposed all efforts to renew it.
But McClintock said "such laws tend to create a society in which criminals are as well-armed as ever and law-abiding citizens are rendered increasingly defenseless." Citizens have a constitutional right to defend themselves with firearms, he said, and the Bushmaster rifle might look like a military assault weapon "but functions with the same firing mechanism as many handguns, sports and target rifles."
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, the survivor of a shooting herself, said California's gun controls are among the nation's strictest and should be a model for federal law -- or perhaps exceeded.
"We're way ahead of the curve,'' she said, "but it still is not enough.''