Democrats in Senate may stifle gun control

Gun-owning constituents, NRA make opinions heard

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WASHINGTON -- As the Senate prepares to debate new gun control measures, some of President Barack Obama's fellow Democrats are poised to frustrate his efforts to enact limits on weapons.

These Democrats, from largely rural states with strong gun cultures, view Obama's proposals warily and have not committed to supporting them. Their 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 is a particular threat to Democrats in pro-gun states who face re-election.

Democrats' political concerns create problems for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has his own history with the NRA.

The 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 NRA pressure, 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.

"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.

"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.

Another Democrat closely watching the issue is Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who in a 2010 campaign ad fired a rifle shot though a copy of Democratic-written climate change legislation. Manchin recently said he's working on legislation to require background checks on most gun purchases. Details weren't clear, but that's the area where advocates most hope for 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.

Democrats, especially 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," said Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo. "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."