WASHINGTON – Gun-control measures that once seemed destined to become law after the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, are in jeopardy amid a fierce lobbying campaign by firearms advocates.
Despite months of intense negotiations, key senators have been unable to find a workable plan for near-universal background checks on gun purchases — an idea that polls show 9 in 10 Americans support.
Another provision that garnered bipartisan support — making gun trafficking a federal crime — could be gutted if Republican lawmakers accept new language being circulated by the National Rifle Association to water down the bill.
The failure of those two measures would be a major setback for the White House and its allies, who have acknowledged that two other proposals — bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines — are not politically viable.
President Barack Obama plans to visit a police academy in Colorado on Wednesday to renew an urgency to overhaul the nation’s gun laws that has ebbed in the more than 100 days since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Obama and his allies have not been able to leverage nationwide support for the proposals into a will to pass them on Capitol Hill.
And an aggressive television ad campaign targeting 13 senators, financed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and in its second week on the air, has not swayed enough lawmakers to ensure passage of the background check measure.
Gun-control proponents are hopeful that senators will soon reach a compromise on background checks even though negotiations are at a standstill. Both sides disagree about whether private sales of firearms, such as those between family members or neighbors, would be exempt, as well as how or whether records would be kept.
The NRA voiced support for expanded background checks as late as 1999. But after the Newtown massacre, it has opposed the idea. NRA officials have argued that the current system is poorly managed and that violators are rarely prosecuted — and they have instilled fear among some key senators that their votes for background checks would have political consequences.
Now some of the same senators targeted by the Bloomberg ads as potential gun-control supporters are showing greater skepticism about expanding checks. The group facing growing pressure from both sides includes a handful of Democratic senators who will be up for re-election in 2014 in conservative states with strong traditions of gun ownership. Alaska Sen. Mark Pryor, for instance, responded tersely to Bloomberg’s ads, saying last week that “I don’t take gun advice from the mayor of New York City. I listen to Arkansans.”
Several Republicans have threatened to filibuster the bill, which requires a 60-vote majority to pass. And Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican who may vote for universal background checks, said Sunday that it “is a bridge too far for most of us.”
Gun-control supporters have tried in recent days to salvage the legislation.
West Virginia’s Sen. Joe Manchin, one of only seven Senate Democrats with at least an “A” rating from the NRA, has stepped in to try to bridge the divide between senators as well as the interest groups on both sides of the debate, said several aides familiar with the talks.
But, the aides added, there has been virtually no progress since senators left Washington on March 23 for a two-week spring recess. And now, back home, senators are assessing the raw politics of their constituencies to determine which could cost them more in the next election: voting for expanding background checks or doing nothing.
“If there was a secret ballot vote, it would pass overwhelmingly because from a substantive point of view, most of these senators understand that this is the right thing to do,” said Matt Bennett, senior vice president at Third Way. “What’s holding them back is pure politics.”
The Republican-led House has put off any consideration of gun-control measures until after the Senate votes. With Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid planning to begin floor debate on guns next week, NRA lobbyists, as well as Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns group, are reviewing legislative language with senators and their staffs.
On Tuesday, the NRA planned to announce a comprehensive plan for school safety, the results of a process begun in the days following the Newtown shootings when the organization seemed on the defensive. Spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said the plan will “go beyond armed personnel.”
On the separate gun-trafficking measure, the NRA is circulating a proposed revision that critics say would eviscerate the principles agreed to last month by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The committee’s bill would criminalize all so-called straw purchases at licensed gun dealers. But the NRA’s draft language would require law enforcement officials to prove that the straw purchaser either had reason to believe the buyer was prohibited from obtaining guns or knew that the buyer intended to commit a crime, according to an analysis of the NRA proposal provided to The Washington Post by the Bloomberg-led mayors group.
Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, said the NRA language would create a “ridiculous” standard for law enforcement officials trying to crack down on trafficking.
Proponents of stricter measures are becoming increasingly fed up with the Senate’s inaction. Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat and survivor of a mass shooting, said the delays have created “an environment so that cowards can succeed.”
“Ninety-one percent of the American people support a universal background check and we’ve got members on the House and Senate side that are gutless,” she said. “They know in their heart of hearts that it’s the absolute right thing to do, but they are more concerned about their re-election.”