The Senate this week plans votes on a wide-ranging series of gun control measures, the first time in years lawmakers will go on the record on major steps to curb gun violence, such as banning assault weapons and restricting the size of magazine clips.
Though the Senate agreed Thursday on a bipartisan vote to begin debate, such measures face uncertain prospects, and it could be difficult to pass any strong legislation backed by gun control supporters.
The gun lobby is powerful, and many lawmakers represent constituencies where gun rights are sacred. And anything the Senate does must get through a House of Representatives run by conservative Republicans wary of stricter gun controls.
“Votes on all anti-gun amendments or proposals will be considered in NRA’s future candidate evaluations,” wrote National Rifle Association lobbyist Chris Cox in a letter to senators signaling plans to “score” them, a way of reminding voters who’s on the side of gun rights.
As the gun bill gets debated, the outcome will depend on a lot of nuance and compromise.
“Details matter so much,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Gun control advocates look closely at what they see as openings that could become loopholes. Gun rights backers worry that almost any kind of restriction is the first step in dramatically curbing their rights.
And, as Collins, who is up for re-election next year, illustrated, no state is monolithic. In northern Maine, she said, the gun culture is well-ingrained. In the southern part of the state, more urban and suburban, constituents worry more about random violence.
The only strategy for deciding how to vote, she said, is “listen to the people of Maine,” and not interest groups such as the NRA or, on the other side, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, spearheaded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Sen. Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat who also is up for re-election and was one of two Senate Democrats voting against moving forward with debate , was more succinct: “I don’t take gun advice from the mayor of New York City. I listen to Arkansans.”
Congress last passed major gun control legislation in 1994, when it agreed to a 10-year ban on many assault weapons. Since then, fear of political repercussions has largely stifled any efforts to even debate such measures.
That changed because of a series of horrific incidents, capped by a gunman’s Dec. 14 killing of 26 people, including 20 schoolchildren, at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. And for the first time since the Clinton administration, the White House got heavily involved in leading the fight for tougher gun laws.
President Obama continued pressing Congress to take up gun control, turning over delivery of his weekly radio/video address Saturday to Francine Wheeler, whose 6-year-old son, Ben, was killed in the Newtown massacre.
Obama – who flew some of the families from Newtown down to Washington on Air Force One to lobby members of Congress – asked Wheeler to tape the address because he “believes (the families’) voices and resolve have been critical to the continued progress we’ve seen in the Senate,” Press Secretary Jay Carney said Friday.
Meanwhile, a group called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America was planning a series of “Stroller Jams” outside the local offices of senators in several states, including Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington. The group also encouraged supporters to use social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.
“We have these moms who are coming out en masse, showing up at state capitols and making their voices heard,” said Shannon Watts, the group’s founder. “We finally have an opposing voice.”
Bloomberg’s organization planned events in several states with mayors, educators and law enforcement officials who support tightened gun laws. The effort was to kick off Friday in Tucson, Ariz., the site of a 2011 mass shooting that wounded former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others.
Giffords’ husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, recorded a phone message thanking Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., for their compromise amendment that would extend criminal background checks to gun show and Internet sales. A Senate vote on that measure is expected Tuesday.
Typically, the Senate’s very makeup is a hurdle to strong action. It’s traditionally the tougher of the two chambers for gun measures, since each state gets two senators, allowing more gun-friendly, more rural states the same clout as bigger, more urban states.
The House has more of an urban representation, and its members must run for office every two years. But House Speaker John Boehner was circumspect about any legislation’s prospects in the House, saying he wants to wait to see what the Senate might do.
What it might do remains one of the year’s big political mysteries. One reason is politics – 35 of the 100 Senate seats are up for re-election next year, many in states where gun control is not widely popular.
“The desire to do something about gun violence is high, but on the other hand, people like hunting and they like their guns,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who is defending one of those seats.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, also voted against allowing the bill to proceed.
“We can keep our communities safer by keeping guns out of the wrong hands and providing our schools more resources,” explained Begich, also up for re-election next year.
Even what was supposed to be a painless compromise – tougher background checks – is proving difficult to sell.
The Manchin-Toomey deal exempts private transactions, a loophole that gun control advocates had sought to close. But even a compromise between two conservative, gun-owning senators wasn’t enough to satisfy the NRA, which immediately announced its “unequivocal” opposition.
Both sides wonder how much politics will play a part in their decision. Too much, figured Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a leader in the gun control effort.
“The first thing too many people think of is getting re-elected,” she said.
Polls aren’t helping lawmakers clarify the situation. While they consistently show overwhelming public support for stronger background checks in most cases , a CNN/ORC poll April 5-7 found a 51 percent to 48 percent split for banning assault weapons. The division over limiting magazine clips was similar, with 53 percent to 46 percent in favor.
The overarching question, said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., is whether a proposal effectively curbs irresponsible gun use.
“There hasn’t been enough explanation of how the background check (compromise) would keep guns out of the hands people who are not criminals, but shouldn’t have a gun,” he said.
That’s why the lobbying efforts, the tweets and Facebook posts, the phone messages , the talk show appearances and the rallies could matter.