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Cracks in NRA’s iron grip on Congress

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 23, 2016, after a procedural vote on gun legislation. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 23, 2016, after a procedural vote on gun legislation. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

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.

A look at the crosscurrents:


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. Most Republicans opposed it, saying it lacked adequate protections for 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 but 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.


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 widespread press and 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.


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.


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 the right of gun ownership.

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



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” and said Republicans would never “take away a citizen’s constitutional rights without due process.” 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: Wide public interest in new gun limitations that routinely peaks after high-profile shootings but gradually fades. That leaves one significant group whose votes remain strongly linked to their view on the subject: 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.”


Associated Press writer Matthew Daly contributed to this report.

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