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Democrats have few cards to play on gun control

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Democrats have few cards to play on gun control

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid took heat from some Democrats and gun control advocates for dumping provisions for restarting the ban on assault weapons sales, and from early appearances, the requirement for more stringent background checks.

Both are the cornerstones of any meaningful gun control legislation. Without them, whatever the Senate finally comes up with would be tepid and ineffectual.

But Reid isn’t to blame for the cave on these proposals. The votes weren’t there to get the assault weapons ban through for reasons that anyone who has watched the doings in Congress on gun control for the past two decades knows full well. That’s the double wallop of the NRA’s iron grip on key legislators, and the deep-seated, passionate belief of millions that gun rights are inviolate no matter how much carnage and grief they wreak. The two can’t be separated.

A tip of just how the two go hand-in-hand came when the Obama Administration got nowhere when it renewed its push to get Caitlin Halligan a judgeship on the influential D.C. Court of Appeals. GOP senators torpedoed the confirmation, but her confirmation was DOA when the NRA said it didn’t want her on the bench because she was a key player as New York Solicitor General in filing lawsuits against gun manufacturers.

An even more ominous tip of the fears of gun owners over alleged government overreach on gun control legislation is the skyrocket in gun sales since the Sandy Hook massacre, and the soar in profits of gun manufacturers. The NRA’s coffers have been immeasurably enriched by both the manufacturers and the individual contributions of gun rights advocates.

This, in turn, has enabled the NRA to double down even harder on legislative pressure on GOP Senators to hang tough against meaningful gun control bans and to cowl into silence protests against the NRA from some Democrats.

The NRA has been wildly successful in sending that message for the past decade through a well-oiled, well-versed, labyrinth of PACs, lobbyists, legal counsels, divisions, funds and a foundation. In 2008, it was directly or indirectly involved in nearly 300 campaigns for the House and Senate. NRA-backed candidates or incumbents won 230 of them.

It has spared no expense in padding its congressional win scorecard. It ranked in the top tier of contributions received, lobbying dollars spent, and money garnered and spent by its PACs. In 2012, 15 out of its near 30 lobbyists had government ties.

The assumption that the NRA is basically a front for conservative GOP business and political interests is another bad misread. Though a big share of the NRA’s campaign dollars went to Republicans, it has been adept at spreading the largess around. In 2012, Democrats received over $250,000 in NRA campaign contributions. In the decade since the assault ban expired in 2004, nearly 20 strong gun control bills have died still-born in House and Senate committees.

The political jockeying by Reid and some Democrats to get consideration for the background checks proposal was a textbook example of a back pedal on a legislative proposal.

There was optimism that it was a done deal to get this into the final bill that the Senate will consider. Some Republicans seemed to give their consent to it, and indeed it did pass the Senate Judiciary Committee, but then it went stillborn, ostensibly over the worry that enforcing background checks for private sales would tramp on Second Amendment rights. Translated, a wider requirement for background checks on sales would chill gun ownership and would open the door for a ban on even more gun sales. This is the dreaded bogeyman of the NRA top cats and they have never been shy about screaming loudly every chance they get that any gun control measure, no matter how seemingly innocuous, will take the country down the supposedly dark and dangerous road to a gun sale ban.

This was plainly evident when the power behind the congressional throne, specifically the NRA’s top congressional lobbyist, virtually ordered that Congress “reject” the tougher provisions. The provision for universal background checks is still on the congressional table for consideration, but given the NRA’s dogged determination to wipe that off the table too, few are betting they’ll lose on this either.

There was great hope after the Sandy Hook massacre that Congress would heed the will of the majority of Americans that want tough and meaningful gun control legislation on the books. Polls still show that that hope hasn’t diminished. But neither has the power of the NRA and the millions of fervent gun rights advocates to thwart it. Put bluntly, Democrats still have few legislative cards to play on gun control.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.