LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — As one of five Democrats who opposed expanding background checks for firearm sales, U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas is facing pressure from gun control groups who are urging him to rethink a position they suggest could haunt him during his re-election bid next year.
Mayors Against Illegal Guns on Thursday brought the father of a student killed in the Newtown, Conn. school shooting last year to Arkansas in the hopes of arranging a meeting with the two-term senator. The director of the group also said it plans to soon air radio ads and send out direct mail pieces focused on Pryor.
Pryor is among several lawmakers the group, co-founded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is focusing on for opposing the background checks measure that failed in the Senate last month. Pryor and Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska are the only Democrats who opposed the measure who are seeking re-election next year.
"This can easily become a dry policy issue where senators get their facts from the same place they get their campaign money. The way you change that is you sit them down with people who lost their children and didn't have to," Mark Glaze, executive director of the group, said. "It is the only thing that works in the end, in our experience."
Neil Heslin, whose 6-year-old son, Jesse Lewis, was among the 20 students and six educators killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December, was in Little Rock Thursday but decided against going to a private Pryor event as originally planned to ask the lawmaker about his vote. Heslin said he hoped to later meet with Pryor.
"I'd like to hear from him why he didn't support the background check bill," Heslin said.
Glaze said the group also planned to soon launch radio ads and a direct mail effort in Arkansas, with a focus on African-American voters – who tend to favor stronger background check measures – but said the group's immediate focus as on getting Pryor to reconsider his position on background checks.
"It is hard for me to imagine a combination of constituencies that would get Mark Pryor over the finish line if he doesn't perform exceptionally well in the African American community," Glaze said.
In an interview, Pryor told The Associated Press he didn't vote for the background check measure because he believed a separate gun control measure he supported by Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa was stronger.
"With all due respect, I understand it's very emotional for families. It was a terrible tragedy what happened in Newtown, but if you look at the Manchin-Toomey bill, there's not one thing in there that would have prevented Jonesboro or Tucson or Aurora or Newtown," Pryor said.
The other Democrats who voted against the expanded background checks measure included North Dakota's freshman Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Sen. Max Baucus of Montana. Baucus has announced he's not seeking re-election next year and Heitkamp isn't up until 2018. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a supporter of the plan, switched his vote to the prevailing "no" side to permit him to call for a revote in the future.
Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, one of the sponsors of the bill, said he plans to bring it back for another vote. Pryor said he's willing to take another look at the measure if Manchin is willing to make changes.
"If Sen Manchin and Sen (Pat) Toomey want to change it and try to work with senators to try and make this a more passable bill, I'd certainly look at any changes," Pryor said.
Other groups hoping to change Pryor's mind include the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which ran a full-page newspaper ad last week criticizing his vote against the measure. The group backed former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter's unsuccessful bid in 2010 to unseat Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the primary.
Spokesman Matt Wall said the committee is not actively seeking a primary challenger for Pryor but said the incumbent lawmaker should be aware he "leaves himself open to that sort of thing happening" by opposing a measure that Bloomberg's group has said polling shows Arkansans overwhelmingly support.
The effort, however, could backfire as Pryor seeks re-election in a state that's turned increasingly Republican. When Bloomberg's group launched an ad urging passage of background checks, Pryor issued a two-sentence retort: "I don't take gun advice from the Mayor of New York City. I listen to Arkansans."
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