The NRA’s Democratic helpers

It's not just Republicans who stand in the way of President Obama's gun control push

Topics: Opening Shot, Harry Reid, Barack Obama, Gun Control, Heidi Heitkamp,

Republican obeisance to the National Rifle Association is a major obstacle toward new legislation to address gun violence. But one of the most powerful Democrats in Washington offered a valuable reminder on Monday night that the issue isn’t simply driven by a partisan divide.

In a new interview with a Nevada public television station, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to endorse any of the reforms that Joe Biden is expected to present to President Obama on Tuesday, stressing that “we need to be very cool and cautious.” Reid also all but pronounced the assault weapons ban – which was on the books from 1994 to 2004 and which will supposedly be part of Biden’s package – dead on arrival, arguing that it stands little chance of clearing the House.

Reid himself has opposed the assault weapons ban in the past and has long positioned himself as a strong supporter of the 2nd Amendment. In his 2010 reelection campaign in Nevada, he pushed hard to win an endorsement from the NRA, but was ultimately denied. In the new interview, he calls immigration reform the top issue facing the Senate this year, and expresses a limited appetite for a debate over new gun control measures.

“In the Senate, we’re going to do what we think can get through the House,” he said. “And I’m not going to be going through a bunch of these gyrations just to say we’ve done something because if we’re really legislators, the purpose of it is to pass legislation.”

Reid’s comments point to some problems for the White House as it seeks to turn Biden’s recommendations into action. The assault weapons ban itself, which California’s Dianne Feinstein helped author back in 1994 and is vowing to reintroduce now, seems to have almost no chance of winning enactment. Not only is there steep resistance in the Republican-controlled House, but the Senate also includes a number of Democrats like Reid from pro-gun states who would rather not go on record voting for a new ban. Alaska’s March Begich, for instance, as already stated his opposition. In stating that he won’t consider legislation that doesn’t stand a chance in the House, Reid appears to be giving pro-gun Senate Democrats an opportunity to duck the question.

The more important question is what, if not an assault weapons ban, pro-gun Democrats in the Senate might be willing to go along with. It seemed an ominous sign when Heidi Heitkamp, the newly elected Democratic senator from North Dakota, pronounced early reports of what Biden and the White House will seek “way in the extreme of what I think is necessary or should be talked about.” Heitkamp did express support for greater efforts to identify and address mental illness, a view that was echoed by West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who cautioned the administration against taking a “guns-first approach without considering the other factors at play.”

Realistically, this leaves the administration with limited legislative options. The White House’s strategy is to try to isolate the NRA even within the pro-gun community, forcing senators like Manchin and Heitkamp along with a handful of House Republicans to side with relatively modest reform proposals put forth by the administration – limits of high-capacity magazines, maybe, or universal background checks and an end to the gun show loophole. The best news for the White House so far is that a few Republicans, including far-right Georgia Rep. Phil Gingrey, have expressed some openness to this idea. If more Republicans like Gingrey speak up, Democrats like Manchin and Heitkamp could find it easier to vote with the White House.

There are also a number of steps Obama can take on his own. The most promising may be radically stepping up prosecutions of would-be gun purchasers who lie on their background checks. So real actions, both legislatively and through executive orders, is possible. It just won’t be sweeping in scope.

Ultimately, the best possible achievement for Obama and gun control advocates may be proving that gun reforms can actually pass Congress – especially with one chamber controlled by the GOP. That would lead to all sorts of talk about the diminished power of the NRA, and the potential for subsequent, more comprehensive reforms. But it would come with a caveat, because the same kind of talk was heard back in 1994, when a Congress – including dozens of Republicans – thumbed its nose at the NRA and enacted the assault weapons ban. But the NRA got the last laugh at the polls that fall (and again in the 2000 election) – enough to scare Democrats and everyone else in Washington away from gun control for nearly two dozen years. Until now.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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