Lawmakers Propose New Gun Laws: Can They Prevent Another Newtown?

Bans on Assault weapons, high-capacity magazines among lawmakers' proposals.

Dec. 17, 2012— -- Could new laws prevent another mass shooting like the one that happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School?

That's the question many are asking in the aftermath of the gut-wrenching massacre that left 27 victims dead, including 20 children.

President Barack Obama appeared at an interfaith memorial service in Newtown, Conn. on Sunday where he sought to comfort the victims' families. He also signaled that he could take action to implement policies designed to prevent mass shootings, saying that he" will use whatever power this office holds" to convene with law enforcement, educators, mental health experts, and others to find the right answers.

"We can't tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change," he said.

Obama did not specify whether he was referring to gun-control laws, mental health reforms, or something else. But his comments were widely judged as an indication that he would seek new measures that tamp down on the availability of weapons that make it easier to carry out mass shootings. That would be a significant move for a president who has rarely spoken about the need for more gun control despite the occurrence of five mass shootings during his first term.

A handful of lawmakers have floated a raft of gun-control related legislation that they want to see passed in the next Congress. Here is a look at some of the proposals and whether they would be effective.

Assault Weapons Ban

Sens. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and others have called for the re-institution of the federal assault weapons ban, which outlawed the manufacture and sale of certain semiautomatic firearms for civilian use. The law was enacted in 1994, but expired in 2004. Feinstein said Sunday she would look to bring up an assault weapons ban in Congress next year.

Even Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a pro-gun rights lawmaker who once used a rifle to shoot at climate change legislation in a campaign ad, said Monday on MSNBC that "I don't know anyone in the sporting or hunting arena that goes out with an assault rifle."

President Barack Obama called for the renewal of the assault weapons ban during his second debate with Republican nominee Mitt Romney in October.

Shooter Adam Lanza, 20, used a .223-caliber semiautomatic Bushmaster rifle at close range to kill children inside Sandy Hook Elementary School. An official described the rifle as Lanza's primary weapon, according to ABC News.

But according to The Wall Street Journal, it is not clear whether the rifle used in the Newtown shooting had characteristics that would have made it illegal under the previous assault weapons ban.

In a detailed post on the 1994 assault weapons ban, Brad Plumer explains that the manner in which the law defined "assault weapons" was very complex, leaving the law full of loopholes. It outlawed 18 types of firearm models that possess military-style features. That meant that similar weapons to those covered in the assault weapons ban remained legal to make and purchase as long as they did not possess certain cosmetic aspects, such as a pistol grip and bayonet mount.

The original ban had "mixed" results in reducing the use of banned guns by criminals, according to a 2004 University of Pennsylvania study. Gun-rights advocates see those results as evidence that assault weapons bans are not effective in reducing crime, saying that murders have dropped even after the ban was lifted.

"At a time when semi-automatic firearms (which [President Obama and allies] misleadingly call 'assault weapons') are more prevalent than ever before, our nation's murder rate is at a 47-year low, having decreased 52 percent since 1991," Chris W. Cox, the top lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, wrote in December 2011.

But pro-gun control groups pointed to loopholes in the law to say that a stronger ban would be needed to more effectively combat crime. A 2008 study by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence found that 168 people were killed and 185 were wounded by assault weapons in the four years following the ban's expiration.

"This now-expired law was limited in scope, and was circumvented by many gun manufacturers; it reduced the use of assault weapons in crime. The experience suggests that a stronger, more comprehensive law would enhance public safety even more," according to the Brady Campaign study.

High-Capacity Magazines

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) will introduce legislation that bans the sale of high-capacity magazines in the next Congress, according to The Huffington Post.

The provision was included in the 1994 assault weapons ban and made it illegal to obtain and carry most large-capacity magazines, defined as being capable of holding more than 10 rounds.

The the Connecticut gunman Lanza was reportedly carrying multiple, high-capacity magazines capable of holding up to 30 rounds each. All victims at the school were shot several times with the high-powered rifle.

Connecticut has some of the strictest gun laws in the country, according to the Brady Campaign, including restrictions on the purchase of so-called "assault weapons." But as Bloomberg Businessweek reported Monday, a 2011 effort to ban the possession of high-capacity magazines (that hold more than 10 rounds) failed in the face of pressure from the National Rifle Association.

Supporters of banning high-capacity magazines say that they make it easier to carry out a mass shooting because a gunman could kill more people without having to spend time to reload the weapon. But opponents say that mass shootings have occurred without the use of high-capacity clips, such as the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting in which the gunman used 10- and 15-round magazines, Bloomberg Businessweek reported.

Mental Health

Public officials have also concentrated on mandating tougher enforcement measures that prevent mentally ill individuals from purchasing guns.

In response to the Virginia Tech massacre, President Bush in January 2008 signed into law a measure designed to strengthen the national criminal background check system by ensuring that mental health records that would bar individuals from purchasing guns are included. The bill was supported by the NRA and the Brady campaign. Mentally ill people are barred under law from legally purchasing firearms under the 1993 Brady Handgun Prevention Act, but the background-check's ability to enforce that provision had been considered weak. At the time the bill was signed, 17 states provided no mental health records to the background-check system, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The Virginia Tech shooter had been ordered by a court to enter into mental-health treatment, but his name was never entered into the background-check system, the Times reported, and he was able to legally purchase the two handguns he used in the massacre.

Some pro-gun control groups, including the Brady Campaign, for several years have called for greater funding of the bill, which provides financial incentives for states to provide mental health records to the national background-check system.

The circumstances in the Newtown shooting, however, were different. The gunman has been described as a "deeply troubled" individual, but no diagnosis of mental illness is known at this time. Multiple guns found at the scene were registered to Lanza's mother Nancy, whom he shot before going to the school, according to ABC News.

Still, lawmakers have called for legislation to beef up mental illness screenings. Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.) was wounded in the 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona that targeted his former boss Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) He penned an op-ed in the Arizona Republic Monday, saying that he would renew his effort to pass the Mental Health First Aid Higher Education Act, "which would provide training to help people identify and respond to signs of mental illness and deal with psychiatric crises."