President Barack Obama pleaded with Congress last week to remember the victims of December’s schoolhouse shootings in Connecticut and tighten the nation’s gun laws. “Shame on us if we’ve forgotten,” he said. “Don’t get squishy.”
But four months after the Newtown killings, there’s no majority in the Senate yet for the measure Obama hopes will be the centerpiece of new regulation: expanded background checks for gun purchasers. At least six of the 55 Democrats in the Senate have not committed to vote yes when the issue comes to the floor later this month.
Take Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., a first-term senator who is likely to face a tough battle for re-election next year.
Even though an Elon University poll last month found that 93 percent of North Carolina voters favor background checks for almost all gun purchasers, that’s not what Hagan’s hearing from many of her constituents. When gun control is in the news, her voicemail fills with warnings from North Carolinians threatening to throw her out of office if she tries to limit their gun rights.
So what’s Hagan’s position? Ambushed by a North Carolina television station last week, she sounded, well, squishy.
“I think that most people today expect to have a criminal background check done before somebody purchases a gun,” she said. “So we will certainly want to see how that provision is laid out in the bill . . . I’m going to see what it is, how it applies, and look into that.”
What has happened to Hagan is the same thing that has happened to other endangered Democrats and the few moderate Republicans who might vote for stronger background checks: They’ve come face-to-face with the power of the National Rifle Association. The group has mobilized its members against all of Obama’s post-Newtown proposals. Its opposition has helped doom liberals’ hopes for a ban on assault weapons or limits on ammunition clips. So now the NRA has taken aim at the most important remaining item on Obama’s wish list: tighter background checks.
The NRA’s campaign is even more fervently anti-regulation than in the past. As recently as 1999, the organization supported near-universal checks for gun purchasers to weed out criminals and the mentally ill, but no longer. Now, the NRA is stoking fears that background checks will lead to a national gun registry, despite language in the bill that specifically prohibits one. The NRA and its supporters also have warned that the expanded checks could force fathers to ask permission from the federal government before giving guns to their sons, even though the Senate proposal exempts family transactions.
Meanwhile, the NRA has made sure that lawmakers like Hagan hear from its members every week.
“The NRA has such deep grassroots,” one longtime proponent of gun control told me. “They have made their members feel that they are the last remaining bulwark to protect the Second Amendment. The members believe it’s their duty.”
Support for stricter gun controls is far broader, but not nearly as deep. A variety of organizations, including one led by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., have tried to gin up public campaigns, and the parents of the slain children of Newtown have returned to Washington repeatedly. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has pledged more than $12 million to the cause, launching television advertisements in the states of senators who, like Hagan, are on the fence.