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Despite GOP opposition, pressure builds for action on gun violence

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: WASHINGTON – With speeches, ads and new vote ratings, advocates of new laws to stem gun violence are trying to turn up the pressure this week on GOP lawmakers who are trying to block action on gun control.

On Tuesday, Mayors Against Illegal Guns – a group backed by funding from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg – put congressional offices on notice that it would start issuing a “scorecard, assigning members a letter grade on their gun policy records.”

On Monday, President Barack Obama told more than 3,000 people in Connecticut that they should pressure Congress to take action – nearly four months after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that took the lives of 20 children and six educators.

“Now is the time to get engaged,” Obama said. “Now’s the time to push back on fear and frustration and misinformation. Now’s time for everybody to make their voices heard, from every statehouse to the corridors of Congress.”

On the day of Obama’s speech, the advocacy spinoff of Obama’s reelection campaign -- Organizing for Action – went online with ads that targeted selected GOP lawmakers on gun control legislation. The ads, running on Facebook and internet search engines, urge viewers to call their senators and push for action.

“Too many Americans are dying from gun violence and Congress needs to act. Call Sen. Collins!” reads one of the ads, which seeks to gin up support among Maine constitutents of moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins.

Similar ads target nine other Senate Republicans – not including U.S. Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill. – and one Democrat, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico.

All the gun-issue activity – including pressure from the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun organizations – occurred as the Senate began debate on a relatively modest gun-violence package, approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Despite threats of a filibuster by a dozen Republicans, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that – if a bipartisan deal isn’t reached by then – he will force a vote Thursday on whether to open debate on gun and school-safety proposals. It would take 60 votes to block a filibuster and open the gun legislation to debate and amendment.

“I can’t believe that, on a public policy matter as important as this, the same [GOP] caucus that’s been clamoring for an open amendment process is going to say to the country: ‘We’re not even going to allow the Senate to talk about this subject,’” said U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

“I think most Missourians – even if they disagree with me on various issues – they appreciate the fact that we should debate it and vote it.”

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., has not been among the GOP senators calling for a filibuster, but he has made it clear that he opposes stricter gun control laws. Instead, he is backing legislation to expand access to mental health treatment and improve the quality of care at community mental health centers.

On Tuesday, the main Democratic sponsor of that bill – U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. – joined veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars at a news conference to call for approval of the mental health bill as an amendment to the main gun control bill.

Bill focuses on background checks, illegal trafficking

If a threatened filibuster is blocked, the Senate would start debate later this week on a package of gun proposals approved last month by the Judiciary Committee.

The three main components of that plan are:

  • Expanding background checks on gun buyers to close a loophole that now exempts private sales, including some purchases made at gun shows.
  • Toughening laws against gun trafficking and straw purchases, based on a compromise backed by U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill.
  • Developing better approaches to improving school safety.

“There was bipartisan support [in committee] for two of the three components of the bill," said McCaskill, with only the background-check component getting no GOP votes. She backs all three of the main components.
Another, far more controversial, bill – which was dropped from the committee package – would reinstate the now-expired ban on semi-automatic rifles modeled on military assault weapons, as well as a ban on large-capacity ammunition magazines.

U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., plans to offer that bill as an amendment, and numerous other senators – Republicans and Democrats – also plan amendments.

“There will be a number of other amendments offered,” McCaskill told reporters. “I’m sure there will be amendments Republicans will want to offer that would limit the scope and reach of any gun-safety measures. And there would be amendments offered by senators on the Democratic side that would expand the scope of this legislation.

“It seems to me that this is the kind of subject that the Senate should debate.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney expressed similar sentiments on Tuesday. “If senators don't have the guts to go on the record to vote how they feel on this issue ... that would be a shame and that would be a disservice to their constituents,” he said.

Vice President Joe Biden said the White House would try to keep up public pressure for up-or-down votes on key gun issues:

“This is not one of these votes, if they block a vote, that somehow we are going to go away.”

NRA fears impact on gun ownership, rights

The National Rifle Association, the nation’s largest gun lobby, is engaged in a pitched battle to try to defeat the gun legislation – either in the Senate or later in the GOP-led House.

“On firearms questions, on Second Amendment questions, there's a divide in this country,” the organization’s president, David Keene, told CNN.

“To call it an ideological divide is too simple because it's a cultural divide. When something happens, the folks on the other side from us say, 'well, the problem's the gun, we need to do something about guns.”

Keene and the NRA’s congressional allies – including Blunt and U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin – express concerns that an expanded background-check system might possibly lead to an effort to create a national registry for guns ownership.

And the NRA - which has been "grading" members of Congress on gun votes for many years - has plenty of allies among Republicans in Congress. According to the Open Secrets group, the NRA made about $1.5 million in campaign contributions last year and reported “outside spending” – partly on political ads – of $19.8 million.

The vast majority of those independent expenditures either supported GOP candidates or opposed Democrats. The NRA also spent $2.98 million in lobbying last year. That sum is likely to increase this year, with the renewed attention on gun control resulting from the December mass shooting in Connecticut.

An Open Secrets analysis found that the NRA contributed $2,000 or more to the campaigns of every Missouri Republican House member up for reelection, as well as $5,950 to the failed Senate campaign of former U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo.

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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