Debate over guns will be back, supporters and critics say

05/28/2013 2:45 PM

06/07/2013 5:57 PM

The debate over guns isn’t over yet.

Supporters – and even opponents – of legislation designed to curb gun violence expect a revised proposal that would expand background checks for firearms sales to return to Congress for a vote later this year, despite a resounding defeat last month.

Vice President Joe Biden, the administration’s point-person on gun control, has renewed a series of meetings with organizations with a vested interest in the issue, from law enforcement officers to religious leaders.

Advocacy groups are pressuring lawmakers they think could be persuaded to change their vote by running ads, packing town halls and signing petitions.

And, perhaps most importantly, senators from both parties are talking privately, seeking small but significant changes to the background check bill to appease critics worried about infringing on privacy and chipping away at the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

“We are at a place that would not have been imaginable in the political landscape four months ago,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, one of the nation’s pre-eminent gun control groups. “We haven’t seen anything like this.”

Following the mass shooting in December at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children dead, President Barack Obama pressed Congress to pass the nation’s most aggressive gun control plan in generations.

But the Democratic-controlled Senate fell short of having the votes needed to approve the proposals – expanding background checks, renewing an assault weapons ban and limiting the size of ammunition clips – after most Republicans and a handful of Democrats rejected them.

Advocates say they were disappointed that the legislation was killed, but they remain invigorated by the first serious gun control debate in two decades. The Brady Bill, which first required checks for purchases from federally licensed dealers, passed in 1993 after more than a half-dozen failed attempts.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has not said when a vote would be held, but Senate leaders say they will need the summer, including the annual August recess, before they can reach consensus. A vote could come as early as September.

“Nobody who was involved in this has abandoned the effort,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a key player in writing the legislation and a former state attorney general.

Both sides expect a second vote, but a victory is not guaranteed. Opposition remains strong.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, found people lined up 3-to-1 against it at his town meetings. “The problem is that nothing in that bill would have prevented any of the recent catastrophes,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the second-ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The focus this time has turned almost solely to expanding background checks to private sales and Internet purchases, a proposal that polls show an overwhelming majority of Americans approve.

But that legislation would not help fix all the loopholes in the law. A host of logistical problems – including concerns about violating privacy, misunderstandings about which records should be submitted and a lack of money and training – has prevented federal and state agencies from submitting millions of mental health and drug abuse records to the database that’s used for background checks.

The amendment, a compromise drafted by a Republican and a Democrat, fell five votes short in the 100-member chamber last month. Four Republicans voted for the bill, but four Democrats voted against it.

Opponents, led by the powerful National Rifle Association, are lobbying to kill the bill by sending mail to their allies on Capitol Hill and by airing TV ads in support of senators who voted against the legislation. One of them, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., has been targeted by the bill’s supporters because of her vote against it.

“Let’s not fool ourselves; it doesn’t mean the war is over,” NRA president David Keene said at his group’s convention in Houston in early May. “We must never confuse winning a battle with winning a war. We all know that . . . our opponents are regrouping and we know that they’ll be back.”

The renewed effort involves both continuing public pressure on vulnerable senators and altering the proposal’s language.

Biden has strategized with advocates and held lengthy meetings with law enforcement officials and religious leaders who he urged to reframe the debate in moral terms. He and Obama will continue to speak out on the issue, aides say, though Obama has yet to hold a public event about guns since the legislation was killed.

“In the end, I believe we will prevail,” Biden wrote in the Houston Chronicle. “And those who wrote off gun safety legislation last month will come to realize that moment wasn’t the end at all. It was the turning point.”

Organizations from Americans for Responsible Solutions, a group formed by former congresswoman and shooting victim Gabby Giffords, and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, founded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have run radio or TV ads trying to shame lawmakers who didn’t vote for the bill, while thanking those who did. And a flurry of groups has held dozens of events in key states, including Arizona, Georgia, Arkansas and Ohio. Obama’s political organization, Organizing for Action, delivered 1.4 million signatures in support of background checks to Capitol Hill.

More events have been planned for this week’s congressional recess.

“People may be surprised at the public outcry,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.

In Washington, key senators are engaged in informal talks, sometimes on the Senate floor during votes, over the language of the bill. The two major changes would allow gun transfers between family members and ensure that no national log of gun owners would be kept.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., a conservative who co-sponsored the bill, was crucial to winning some bipartisan support. But after the failed vote, he indicated he was done. Then politics intervened. His poll numbers went up, and late last week Toomey said that he was open to new talks.

“If we could bring some more people on board, of course I’m willing to bring the bill back up,” he said.

So far, though, Toomey said he hasn’t found anyone willing to change their vote, but he continues to explore alternatives.

But even if the bill passes the Senate this time, it faces enormous challenges in the House of Representatives, where Republicans have a large majority.

“It would be a very tough sell for me personally,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., an influential veteran lawmaker.

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