One year after background check defeat, modest goals
WASHINGTON — Democratic worries about this November’s elections, a lack of Senate votes and House opposition are forcing congressional gun-control supporters to significantly winnow their 2014 agenda, a year after lawmakers scuttled President Barack Obama’s effort to pass new curbs on firearms.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., recently said he needs additional votes before revisiting a proposed expansion of gun sale background checks that the Senate derailed last April.
That has left advocates of tighter gun curbs hoping Reid will allow votes on more modest proposals, such as one by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., to add convicted stalkers to the list of criminals barred from acquiring guns.
But with Reid wary of exposing Democratic senators facing tight re-election contests in some conservative and Western states to politically risky votes — and the Republican-run House showing no appetite to restrict guns anyway — people aren’t holding their breath waiting for proposed gun restrictions to reach the Senate floor before Election Day.
“This kind of change doesn’t happen overnight,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “There are obviously a lot of other considerations and variables in play here, like elections.”
Klobuchar’s bill on stalkers would play into Democrats’ campaign-season theme of pushing legislation that appeals to women, a key Democratic voting bloc. She said Tuesday she has discussed her legislation with Reid but didn’t ask about holding a vote because she’s first trying to round up Republican support to make the measure bipartisan.
Democratic caution on the gun issue has been displayed several times recently, even as the December 2012 killings of 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., that fanned interest in firearms restrictions fade further into the past.
The September 2013 shooting deaths of 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard and this month’s slaying of three people outside Jewish community centers in Overland Park, Kan., were greeted with no fresh Democratic legislative pushes.
And in the face of National Rifle Association opposition last month, the White House paused its effort to push its surgeon general nominee through the Senate — Dr. Vivek Murthy, a Harvard Medical School physician, Obama political organizer and gun-control supporter.
“They’re waiting for another tragedy to exploit,” Chris Cox, the NRA’s chief lobbyist, said of the Senate hiatus on gun activity. “The question is, do they want gun owners across this country to be more enraged this election cycle than they’re already going to be?”
White House officials say they’ve not abandoned the issue. They cite 23 executive orders Obama issued last year, including restarting federal research on gun violence, plus additional steps like starting to close a loophole that let some felons get machine guns by registering them to trusts or corporations.
“We’re just going to keep pushing until Congress does the right thing,” presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett told gun-control activists last week.
As the issue has ebbed in Congress, it has accelerated in the states, where legislatures are debating hundreds of gun-related bills, some weakening and others strengthening restrictions.
Meanwhile, powerful groups are revving up for the fall elections.
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire and advocate of firearms curbs, plans to spend $50 million this year setting up a new group that will mix campaign contributions with field operations aimed at pulling gun-control voters to the polls.
The new organization, Everytown for Gun Safety, will focus on women, especially mothers, and work on state and federal elections, the group said.
Bloomberg said today on NBC’s “Today” that his group will reward candidates “who are protecting lives, and make sure that those who are trying to keep people from being protected lose elections.”
Also planning campaign activity this year is Americans for Responsible Solutions, a gun-control group headed by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and her husband, ex-astronaut Mark Kelly. The group reported late Tuesday that its political committee has raised nearly $14.5 million since it was founded in January 2013, and it plans to spend its money on federal and state races, said spokesman Mark Prentice.
Giffords was severely wounded in a Jan. 8, 2011, shooting rampage that killed six people.
The National Rifle Association spent nearly $20 million on federal campaign activity in 2012 races. Its true strength is viewed as its claimed 5 million members, many of whom consider gun issues strongly when voting.
One area where fights over gun policy seem likely is in the annual bills Congress must pass to finance federal agencies.
Those bills traditionally contain more than a dozen longstanding, gun-related provisions. These include language making it easier to import antique guns and harder for the government to get gun-tracing information from licensed firearms dealers.
When lawmakers consider those spending measures, Republicans could try blocking requirements that gun dealers in states bordering Mexico report multiple purchases of shotguns or rifles to one buyer, an effort the Democratic-led Senate thwarted last year.
Democrats could try requiring dealers to conduct annual inventories and report the results to the government.
A year ago, Reid fell five votes short of the 60 needed to bust a GOP procedural blockade against the background check measure. He and others have said they’ve not yet lined up any additional votes.
Also defeated were Democratic efforts to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, tools used by some assailants in recent mass shootings.
The background check provision, written by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., would have required such checks for all commercial firearms purchases at gun shows and online. Currently, background checks — aimed at preventing criminals and the mentally ill from acquiring weapons — are required only for sales handled by licensed federal gun dealers.
In a sign of how times change, Toomey and Manchin are working again this year on background check legislation — aimed this time at making sure teachers and others who work with children are not sexual predators.