WASHINGTON — As the Senate prepares to begin debating new gun control measures, some of President Barack Obama's fellow Democrats are poised to frustrate his efforts to enact the most sweeping limits on weapons in decades.
These Democrats from largely rural states with strong gun cultures view Obama's proposals warily and have not committed to supporting them. The lawmakers' concerns could stand in the way of strong legislation before a single Republican gets a chance to vote "no."
"There's a core group of Democratic senators, most but not all from the West, who represent states with a higher-than-average rate of gun ownership but an equally strong desire to feel their kids are safe," said Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. "They're having hard but good conversations with people back home to identify the middle-ground solutions that respect the Second Amendment but make it harder for dangerous people to get their hands on guns."
All eyes are on these dozen or so Democrats, some of whom face re-election in 2014. That includes Sens. Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.
The Senate Judiciary Committee begins hearings Wednesday.
Interest groups, lobbyists, lawmakers, crime victims and others with a stake in the outcome will be watching these senators closely for signals about what measures they might support. The answers will say a lot about what, if anything, Congress can pass in the wake of the shootings of 20 school and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., last month.
At issue are Obama's proposals to ban assault weapons, limit ammunition magazines, crack down on trafficking and require universal background checks. Leading the charge against those ideas is the National Rifle Association. The group wields enormous power to rally public sentiment and is a particular threat to Democrats in pro-gun states who face re-election.
The political concerns of Democrats create problems for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has his own history with the NRA.
The powerful gun lobby endorsed him in previous elections, but stayed neutral in his most recent race, in 2010. Even before Obama announced the gun proposals this month, Reid told a Nevada PBS station that an assault weapons ban would have a hard time getting through Congress. That comment irked Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., author of such a ban.
"Clearly it wasn't helpful," she said this past week in reintroducing her measure. But Feinstein's original assault weapons ban was a stern political lesson for Reid and other Democrats. Its passage as part of President Bill Clinton's crime bill in 1994 was blamed for Democratic election losses that year after the NRA campaigned against lawmakers who supported the legislation. When the assault weapons ban came up for renewal in 2004, Congress, under pressure from the NRA, refused to extend it.
Reid has pledged action on gun measures. "This is an issue we're not going to run from," he said. But he's under pressure from all sides.
Some major pieces of legislation are shepherded by the Senate leadership to the Senate floor. But Reid is promising that the gun bills will go through the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose chairman is Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a gun owner and Second Amendment supporter.
Reid also is promising an open amendment process, potentially a lengthy endeavor. Those signals have some gun control activists concerned that the process will go so slowly that it will grind to a halt without action. Some question whether that's just the outcome desired by some moderate Democrats.
"I'm concerned just because Harry Reid has a mixed record on these things and we want him to be a champion," said Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
On the other side, the NRA, known for rewarding friends and punishing enemies, promises it will be closely watching Reid, too.
"He's going to be torn and a lot of people are going to be torn, particularly Democrats, but I think as the debate goes on he'll do more good than bad from our perspective," said David Keene, NRA president. "All this stuff has been debated before and once you get into a debate and a discussion and say will this do anything to protect children, to prevent another Newtown, I think the answer is going to come out `no.'"
Baucus, Begich, Pryor and others have been cautious in their comments on Obama's gun proposals.
Baucus called for "a thoughtful debate." Begich told his home state Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that passage of any element of the package was "a long haul. ... There are some of us who just fundamentally believe in a Second Amendment right." Pryor has told Arkansas media that efforts on gun safety should start with enforcing existing laws.
Another Democrat closely watching the issue is Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, known for a 2010 campaign ad where he fired a rifle shot though a copy of Democratic-written climate change legislation. Manchin recently told a West Virginia radio station that he's working on legislation to require background checks on most gun purchases. Details weren't clear but that's the area where advocates are most hopeful of finding a solution that could get through the Senate and possibly even the Republican-controlled House.
The NRA generally opposes legislation mandating universal background checks and disputes gun control groups' claims that 40 percent of purchases happen without such checks. NRA officials question whether background checks could be done effectively in a way that makes a difference and doesn't disrupt legitimate sales.
The NRA's executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, is to testify Wednesday before Leahy's committee.
Democrats, especially those from gun-rights states, will be weighing whether to side with the NRA or follow the president, or how best to split the difference.
"We're a Second-Amendment state. I support the rights of sportsmen and target shooters and collectors to own firearms. It's an important part of our culture and tradition," Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said in an interview. "But I just hear there's such grave concern given the experiences we've had with Aurora, Columbine ... people all over Colorado want to prevent these massacres."
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Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas)
"I wish to God she had had an m-4 in her office, locked up so when she heard gunfire, she pulls it out ... and takes him out and takes his head off before he can kill those precious kids," Gohmert said of slain principal Dawn Hochsprung on <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/16/louie-gohmert-guns_n_2311379.html"><em>Fox News Sunday</em></a>. He argued that shooters often choose schools because they know people will be unarmed.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R)
"If people were armed, not just a police officer, but other school officials that were trained and chose to have a weapon, certainly there would be an opportunity to stop an individual trying to get into the school," he <a href="http://www.wtop.com/610/3162096/Gov-Is-it-time-to-arm-school-officials">told WTOP's "Ask the Governor" show</a> Tuesday, warning that Washington may respond to such a policy with a "knee-jerk reaction."
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) & State Sen. Frank Niceley (R)
Gov. Haslam says he will consider a Tennessee plan to secretly arm and train some teachers, <a href="http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2012/12/tennessee-armed-teachers.php">TPM reports</a>. The legislation will be introduced by State Sen. Frank Niceley (R) next month. "Say some madman comes in. The first person he would probably try to take out was the resource officer. But if he doesn’t know which teacher has training, then he wouldn’t know which one had [a gun]," Niceley told TPM. "These guys are obviously cowards anyway and if someone starts shooting back, they’re going to take cover, maybe go ahead and commit suicide like most of them have."
Oklahoma State Rep. Mark McCullough (R) & State Sen. Ralph Shortey (R)
State Rep. Mark McCullough (R) <a href="http://www.tulsaworld.com/news/article.aspx?subjectid=336&articleid=20121217_336_0_OKLAHO168827">told the Tulsa World</a> he plans to file legislation that would bring guns into schools, calling their absence "irresponsible." “It is incredibly irresponsible to leave our schools undefended – to allow mad men to kill dozens of innocents when we have a very simple solution available to us to prevent it," he said. "I’ve been considering this proposal for a long time. In light of the savagery on display in Connecticut, I believe it’s an idea whose time has come." Sen. Ralph Shortey (R) told the Tulsa World that teachers should carry concealed weapons at school events. "Allowing teachers and administrators with concealed-carry permits the ability to have weapons at school events would provide both a measure of security for students and a deterrent against attackers," he said.
Florida State Rep. Dennis Baxley (R)
Baxley, who once sponsored Florida's controversial Stand Your Ground law, <a href="http://politics.heraldtribune.com/2012/12/17/florida-legislator-allow-guns-in-schools/">told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune </a>that keeping guns out of schools makes them a target for attacks. “We need to be more realistic at looking at this policy," he said. "In our zealousness to protect people from harm we’ve created all these gun-free zones and what we’ve inadvertently done is we’ve made them a target. A helpless target is exactly what a deranged person is looking for where they cannot be stopped.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R)
At a Tea Party event Monday night, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/18/rick-perry-guns-in-schools_n_2322185.html">Perry praised a Texas school system that allows some staff to carry concealed weapons to work</a> and encouraged local school districts to make their own policies.
Minnesota State Rep. Tony Cornish (R)
Cornish <a href="http://www.kdlt.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=22736&Itemid=57">plans to introduce legislation that would allow teachers to arm themselves</a>, according to the AP.
Oregon State Rep. Dennis Richardson (R)
In an email <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/17/oregon-state-rep-dennis-richardson-teacher-guns-stopped-connecticut-shooting_n_2317444.html?ir=Education">obtained by Gawker</a> and excerpted below, Richardson tells three superintendents that he could have saved lives had he been armed and in Sandy Hook on Friday: <blockquote>If I had been a teacher or the principal at the Sandy Hook Elementary School and if the school district did not preclude me from having access to a firearm, either by concealed carry or locked in my desk, most of the murdered children would still be alive, and the gunman would still be dead, and not by suicide. ... [O]ur children's safety depends on having a number of well-trained school employees on every campus who are prepared to defend our children and save their lives?</blockquote>
Former Education Secretary Bill Bennett
"And I'm not so sure -- and I'm sure I'll get mail for this -- I'm not so sure I wouldn't want one person in a school armed, ready for this kind of thing," Bennett, who served as education secretary under Ronald Reagan, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/16/bill-bennett-education-secretary-connecticut-shooting_n_2311774.html">told <em>Meet the Press</em> Sunday</a>. "The principal lunged at this guy. The school psychologist lunged at the guy. It has to be someone who's trained, responsible. But, my god, if you can prevent this kind of thing, I think you ought to."