‘Very tough’: Schumer and Kelly announce a measure against phone theft, but regret that they can’t do much about gun laws

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Chuck Schumer and Ray Kelly. (Reid Pillifant)
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Asked about the prospects for gun control legislation yesterday, at an afternoon press conference with New York Police Department commissioner Ray Kelly, Senator Chuck Schumer let out a deep sigh.

The question came in the context of the shooting of four police officers in Brooklyn this weekend, and whether there was anything either Schumer or Kelly could do to enact meangingful changes to the nation's gun laws.

"Well, I think we've done everything we can reasonably do," said Kelly. "Certainly the mayor has led this fight since he's been in office and done a terrific job in raising people's consciousness. But it's very difficult to move this type of legislation in Washington."

In theory, the two men don't lack for power. Schumer is the number-two Democrat in the Senate majority, and Kelly is perhaps the most highly regarded police chief in the country, who Schumer himself often floats as a future F.B.I. director. (Schumer had just introduced him as "one of the very finest law enforcement people in America, not only today but in America's history.")

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But neither had any answer for how to overcome the immovable opposition of the National Rifle Association.

Kelly made reference his own four years in Washington—he worked for the Treasury Department and the Customs Service in the 1990s, between stints as New York police commissioner—and said he certainly understands "how strong the N.R.A. is in Washington and that impacts both sides of the aisle."

"So quite frankly, I'm not optimistic that there's going to be any significant change as far as federal legislation is concerned," he said.

Schumer didn't have any reason to be optimistic either.

"Let me just say as somebody who's been working on this for 20 years, I was the author of the Brady Law, the author of the Assault Weapons Ban, in the day when we could pass those things, it's very tough, because—as the commissioner said—because of the power of the gun lobby," Schumer said.

As a Brooklyn congressman, Schumer made gun control a hallmark of his political profile. But that was before the N.R.A. essentially won the war on gun control in Washington, and inspired such overwhelming fear in so many congressmen that the same assault weapons ban Schumer passed in 1994 was allowed to sunset in 2004 without so much as a floor vote.

"To be honest with you, most of the time I spend on gun legislation is to stop even worse things from passing," said Schumer, who cited the recent, narrow defeat (again) of a bill which would force states to honor concealed weapons permits from other states. 

But Schumer, who is the chief message man for the Democrats, didn't lay blame at the feet of Republicans.

"I would say in general, it tends to be a more geographic issue than a partisan issue," he said. "Peter King, I believe, has been an advocate for gun-control laws, for instance. He's from New York. And we have Democrats from other states who are not. More Democrats are for it than are Republicans, but I would not call it a partisan issue. I'd call it more of a geographic issue."

The two were taking questions after a packed press conference announcing a new database that will allow phone companies to permanently disable stolen cell phones, which was, effectively, a demonstration of the two men's power to effect change and marshal attention on other issues.

In front of ten television cameras and a few dozen reporters crowded into his midtown office, Schumer said Kelly had made him aware of the growing problem of cell phone thefts, and Schumer said he had spoken to Julius Genachowski, the head of the F.C.C., who Schumer proudly noted (a couple of times) was his former aide.

With Genachowski's help, they had convinced the cell phone companies to start the database and to cover all the costs. Schumer also said he was introducing legislation to make it a federal crime to tamper with the identification numbers on phones. He sounded more upbeat about the prospects for that one.