After Orlando, slight cracks in gun-rights’ grip on Congress

By: | Published: June 24, 2016 10:17 PM

Even after the Orlando shooting slaughter, no one expects Congress to dramatically tighten firearms curbs...

Yet a few modest election-year cracks have shown in the iron grip that Republicans and the National Rifle Association have long enjoyed on the issue. (Reuters)Yet a few modest election-year cracks have shown in the iron grip that Republicans and the National Rifle Association have long enjoyed on the issue. (Reuters)

Even after the Orlando shooting slaughter, no one expects Congress to dramatically tighten firearms curbs.

Yet a few modest election-year cracks have shown in the iron grip that Republicans and the National Rifle Association have long enjoyed on the issue.

The June 12 carnage in Orlando left 49 dead, the worst mass-shooting in modern U.S. history. In the days since, Congress has seen predictable partisan standoffs over how to react, but also signs that Democrats feel emboldened and some Republicans sense a need to respond differently.

Also read:Orlando shooting: US Senate fails to move new gun control restrictions

A look at the crosscurrents:

WHAT’S DIFFERENT

On Thursday, eight Senate Republicans – an unusually high number – backed an NRA-opposed compromise barring guns to some suspected terrorists.

It cleared a procedural vote 52-46 but fell short of the 60 votes it would need to survive a filibuster, in effect stalling it. Most Republicans were opposed, saying it inadequately protected people erroneously on federal lists of terror suspects.

The eight Republicans included the proposal’s chief author, moderate GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who’s taken on the NRA before and this time found pragmatists from both parties as co-sponsors. Several are gun owners and one was Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who often backs the NRA and faces re-election in 2018.

Three Republicans who supported Collins have tight re-election fights this year. One, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, also voted this week for a more sweeping measure resembling one she’d opposed just seven months ago.

Three moderate Republicans and a Democrat are proposing House legislation similar to Collins.’

WHAT ABOUT DEMOCRATS?

Energized Democrats have taken the offensive on guns, an issue they’ve often shied away from during campaign seasons.

Though the GOP controls Congress, Democrats commandeered both chambers with a 15-hour Senate filibuster and a nearly 26-hour, old-fashioned sit-in on the House floor that won massive social media coverage.

Democrats challenging the powerful NRA deep in an election-year is ”a sea-change,” says Arkadi Gerney, a gun policy expert at the liberal Center for American Progress.

While liberals are happy to attack the firearms lobby, party leaders have often spent election years avoiding the issue to protect Democratic candidates in swing states where pro-gun voters are numerous.

WHY THE SHIFTS?

Besides the sheer number of casualties and recent years’ spate of mass shootings, Democrats and Collins were partly enabled by Omar Mateen, the Orlando perpetrator killed by authorities. He was an American who’d pledged solidarity to the Islamic State extremist group and had once been on the government’s terrorist watch list.

That let Democrats and Collins cast the issue as one of national security – an easier political lift than gun control. It also invited a bumper-sticker, commonsense appeal: No-fly, no buy, shorthand for barring terror suspects on the government’s no-fly list from purchasing guns.

”I think this is really a watershed week,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a leader of the filibuster. ”I think the enthusiasm is shifting from the gun-lobby forces to the force of change.”

Mateen targeted a nightclub popular with gay Hispanics. Latino and LGBT voters are enthusiastic Democratic constituencies whom the party would love to bring to the polls in November.

GOP RESPONSE TO ORLANDO

Republicans and the NRA have also characterized Orlando as a terrorist attack. They argue that Democratic proposals wouldn’t stop many terrorists and insufficiently protect gun owners’ rights.

”Anti-gun politicians are exploiting a terrorist attack to push gun control,” said top NRA lobbyist Chris W. Cox.

WHAT’S NOT CHANGED

The week started with the Senate rejecting four measures – two from each party – strengthening required background checks for gun buyers and barring many suspected terrorists from purchasing firearms. That’s become a recognizable dance as Democrats offer bills that Republicans say are overly restrictive, and the GOP counters with proposals that Democrats call too weak.

This week’s roll calls showed that Congress clearly lacks the votes to enact major new restrictions on who can purchase firearms or other curbs – and that each side remains happy to attack the other over it.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., called the Democratic sit-in ”a publicity stunt.” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the GOP leadership ”is letting the NRA run the show.”

Another familiar pattern that Democrats hope is changing: Public interest in new gun limitations that routinely peaks after high-profile shootings but gradually fades. That leaves one significant group whose view on guns remains strongly linked to how they vote: Firearms enthusiasts.

”The intensity is always with the gun owners,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., who headed the House GOP’s political operation. ”Everyone else says, `It’s nice you’re with me,’ but then they go on to other issues.”

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