02/06/2013 07:01 pm ET

Obama's Progressive Base Tempers Expectations For Assault Weapons Ban

WASHINGTON -- As President Barack Obama navigates the early stages of the gun policy debate, he has largely been spared the type of political pressure from its base that affected previous legislative battles.

Progressive groups and gun control activists are deeply committed to enacting reforms that are as extensive as possible. But their emotional investment in some of the more controversial legislative items has been tempered. In particular, few if any advocates are using the passage of a proposed assault weapons ban as a benchmark of success, even if virtually all of them are calling for its enactment.

Lawmakers and aides, who have tried to keep political sparks at a minimum, have welcomed the subdued approach. But it has also contributed to the conventional wisdom that the assault weapons ban will be axed from the final package. As it stands now, the measure of success is not whether the ban passes, but whether it gets a vote at all.

"The president firmly supports reinstatement of the assault weapons ban. He has long supported that. He understands that these issues are difficult, that achieving them will not be easy, but he is committed to pressing forward on them and to enlisting the support of lawmakers in both the House and the Senate of both parties in the effort," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday. "As for the assault weapons ban, in particular, I think he said on Sunday and I know he believes that this needs to come to a vote."

In the past, such proclamations from Carney would have left the Democratic base deflated. Just replace the term "assault weapons ban" with "consumer protection board" or, better yet, "public option." During the debates over financial reform and health care, respectively, the inclusion of those reforms was a top priority for the progressive community, which argued that they were policy keystones.

The comparison is not exact. Many gun rights advocates don't see passage of the assault weapons ban as a first step to more far-reaching reforms, which was a major part of the public option's allure. Nor do they view the assault weapons ban as the most critical component of the gun policy recommendations being debated.

"I'm not making the case against the assault weapons ban," said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "If you talk to policy experts, what a lot of them would tell you is that in terms of real impact, the one to have is criminal background checks ... In this case, the very effective thing is also the very popular thing."

But the assault weapon ban's high-profile inclusion has added drama to the broader legislative debate and placed a spotlight on the ever-evolving relationship between the president and his base.

Part of the reason that progressives haven't rallied raucously behind the ban is that they haven't had the time. No one was mobilizing behind gun legislation of any variety during the 2012 election because the prospects of passage seemed so remote. It wasn't until the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that talks of reform began in earnest. Even then, it was unclear whether an assault weapons ban would be something that the president threw his weight behind.

"There wasn't a movement wide push around gun control policy because the policies around gun control have been broken so long," said Nita Chaudhary, co-founder of UltraViolet, a progressive women's issues advocacy group. "In a lot of ways, Obama opened the door for gun control advocacy to happen because he went further than expected."

For UltraViolet, the push to get an assault weapons ban signed into law will intensify as the legislative process unfolds, if only because the group's members are more passionate about that provision than any other. Currently, they have 80,000 signatures on a petition in support of a ban. The PCCC, meanwhile, has put up a television ad urging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to back elements of reform, including the assault weapons ban.

But opinions on gun policy don't always perfectly match political ideology. As some progressive groups have discovered, their members have doubts about specific policies.

"A lot of progressive groups haven’t worked on this in a while because their membership is divided," said Becky Bond, president of progressive advocacy organization CREDO SuperPAC. "I would guess that most progressive groups have a vocal minority of people who don’t want to touch this issue and the question becomes: do you push on this or not? For us, this issue, a women's right to choose, funding for Planned Parenthood, it doesn't matter how many people push back. This is why we do this work."

The internal politics of the progressive community are only part of the reason why some have hesitated to back the assault weapons ban. In addition to not seeing it as a cure-all for gun violence, advocates view it as a massive legislative lift. A Republican-controlled House of Representatives and the need for a 60-vote threshold in the Senate have a way of dampening expectations.

As one top progressive advocate put it, "the best hope may be that you pass some gun legislation in hopes that it builds momentum for more later." In that light, it makes sense to focus demands on holding a vote.

"We need every member of the Senate on the record," said Bond. "And then they need to face the voters in the next election based on that vote."

Then there is the White House's role in managing the base. Unlike in legislative battles past, the president has gone out of his way to involve stakeholders in the gun policy reform process, whether working with them in meetings to craft recommendations or holding events outside the Beltway to rally support.

The outreach has not gone unnoticed. Several progressive advocates applauded the administration for the way it has handled the process.

"This is the lesson we learned over the first four years," said a senior administration official. "It is not sufficient to sit around a table in Washington, D.C., to pass these things. You have to have an inside strategy, working with members of Congress, and you also have to have an outside strategy to make sure that members of Congress, particularly the Republicans who have been recalcitrant, are aware of the public desire for these outcomes."

Seeing the president making the case for an assault weapons ban "is important to the advocates on the issue," said the official. "It is as important to our end goal, which is to get it done."



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