The West Virginia Citizen’s Defense League is organizing a protest tomorrow at the offices of U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, one of Congress’s strongest supporters of gun rights.
The group’s Facebook page dedicated to organizing the event includes a photo of Manchin shooting a rifle with the word “hypocrite” underneath. One Facebook user posted the question “Pitchforks okay?”
Three days after the Dec. 14 shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school, Manchin suggested it was time to talk about gun control. He was the first politician with a top rating from the National Rifle Association to invite such a conversation, and others quickly followed, placing Democrat Manchin, 65, at the center of the first gun-control debate in Washington in more than a decade.
After the NRA broke its silence today and called for placing armed guards in every school, Manchin wrote in an opinion piece for The Washington Post that such increased security is worth addressing though it “can’t be the only measure that comes out of this.”
He called for a national commission on mass violence to look at guns, violent entertainment and mental health issues.
“We need to address all of them,” he wrote. “I, for one, simply cannot support any proposal that doesn’t address all aspects of this problem.”
Manchin, an avid hunter, first spoke out on MSNBC Dec. 17.
“Seeing the massacre of so many innocent children has changed everything,” he said. “I want to call all our friends at the NRA and sit down. They have to be at the table. This is a time for all of us to sit down and move in a responsible manner. I think they will.”
Manchin already had been making those calls. He said Dec. 19 on West Virginia MetroNews that every day since the Connecticut shooting he’d been talking to representatives from the NRA, the nation’s largest gun lobby, which endorsed him in his November re-election and gave him an “A” rating.
The Fairfax, Virginia-based group, which claims 4 million members, spent $12 million in an unsuccessful attempt oust President Barack Obama. Before making its armed guard proposal today, the NRA had said on Dec. 18 that it would “offer meaningful contributions” to avoiding another tragedy like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
Manchin didn’t respond to calls and e-mails for this article.
His response to the crisis came as no surprise to those who’ve watched his career. Manchin was born and raised in the coal-mining town of Farmington, West Virginia, and served in state politics before coming to Washington. He also started a small coal brokerage in Fairmont, now controlled by his son.
As West Virginia’s governor from 2005 to 2010, he earned a reputation as someone who could get opposing sides to work out problems.
“Joe has a way of bringing people together,” said Larry Puccio, chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party. “He believes that when there is an issue to be dealt with, you don’t run from it, you bring people together, sit down, and deal with it.”
Manchin had barely crossed the threshold of the governor’s mansion in Charleston in 2005 when he called Steve Roberts, president of the state’s Chamber of Commerce, and said he intended to fix the state’s workers’ compensation system which was deep in debt and at risk of collapse.
For almost a year, Manchin brought Roberts and other business leaders into meetings with the heads of the teachers union, the mineworkers’ unions, and claimants’ lawyers.
“He didn’t turn them over to an assistant,” Roberts said. “He came to the table and sat at the head of the table and said we can work this out.”
In the end, Manchin privatized the workers-comp system, and spread the pain around by insisting businesses contribute to paying the system’s debt while making it harder for workers to qualify for benefits.
Pulling off a similar victory at the national level on an issue as politically volatile as gun control won’t be easy. Still, the West Virginian who’s been in the Senate for just two years has a unique advantage: bona fides with gun owners in his state and elsewhere who trust that he knows weapons and doesn’t think gun owners should be treated as criminals.
“I’m an avowed Republican, but I did split my ticket and vote for Joe,” said Cliff Vinson, an ex-Marine and Vietnam veteran who is a licensed bounty hunter and trains people to use guns in his son’s Martinsburg, West Virginia shop.
Vinson is concerned that lawmakers who know nothing about guns will pass new bans on weapons they don’t understand.
“See this?” he says, holding up a long black shotgun that looks like it could be in a movie about a hostage standoff. “Does this look scary to you?”
He then reaches into a tall, black safe at the back of GlockCop Guns & Ammo and pulls out a Remington 870 hunting shotgun with a wooden stock.
“This is exactly the same gun. I changed the pistol grip and the butt stock and that changed a deer-hunting shotgun into a shotgun that a SWAT team would use,” says Vinson, who sports a USMC tattoo down his left forearm.
Vinson says the popular ideas on gun control, banning assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips, may not be effective. A good shooter can reload in seconds, he says, and the line between hunting rifle and assault rifle is blurry.
“A lower capacity magazine is not the answer. The answer is better psychological evaluations of gun users,” Vinson says.
Manchin earned the support of Vinson and other small-government West Virginians by walking a fine line in a state that’s historically been Democratic but has been turning Republican. From 1976 to 1996, the state voted Democratic in the presidential race in every election except Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election in 1984. Starting in 2000, West Virginia has backed the Republican candidate in the last four White House contests, including Mitt Romney over Obama last month, 62 percent to 36 percent.
Manchin was elected to the Senate in 2010 in a campaign held after the death of the incumbent, Democrat Robert C. Byrd. Manchin was re-elected last month after keeping his distance from Obama and positioning himself as a defender of both workers’ and gun owners’ rights. He opposes gay marriage and abortion rights, and is a critic of the Environmental Protection Agency, which is unpopular in his coal-dependent state.
In his first race, Manchin aired an ad in which he slowly loaded a rifle and shot a hole into a copy of legislation designed to cut greenhouse-gas emissions from coal.
During his two years in Washington, he’s bucked his party by supporting a minimum 30 percent tax rate for the wealthy and voting in favor of building the Keystone XL gas pipeline, a project many Democrats opposed because of concerns about its environmental impact. He sits on the Energy and Natural Resources and Armed Services committees.
In the emerging debate over gun control, Manchin hasn’t endorsed any particular proposals or path ahead. In a 16-minute interview on West Virginia MetroNews, he declined to say whether he’d support additional restrictions on guns.
Still, he said, everything should be on the table, and for some West Virginians having Manchin in the room is crucial to ensuring a balanced and credible result.
“The political discussion has become uninformed, knee jerk, vitriolic, and charged with emotion,” said Father Eric Hall, pastor at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in the center of Martinsburg.
“What does gun control mean? We need to have a sensible conversation about what this means,” Hall said in his spare office where an American Girl-style doll dressed as a nun rested on a shelf. The voices of children on the playground from the church’s school could be heard through the window.
Hall doesn’t own any guns, and is a vegetarian. He’s supportive, though, of West Virginia gun owners’ rights. He says several of his parishioners depend on hunting for a large portion of their food.
Hall said he admires Manchin because he thinks for himself.
“One of my beefs with politicians is when they vote party line,” he said. “He doesn’t. That’s what I find healthy about him.”