As the Senate prepares to vote tomorrow on advancing gun control legislation, advocates and foes are accelerating lobbying efforts. A prime target: Virginia Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat with an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association.
Last night, a pro-gun control group from his state delivered a petition with 3,000 signatures urging his support for background checks and restrictions on semi-automatic weapons and ammunition. Others have left messages in surprising places on his Facebook page: “Really, turkey hunters need military-style weapons more than mothers and fathers need to protect their kids from these powerful weapons?” one Midlothian, Virginia, woman wrote under a March 29 photo of Warner kissing a toddler.
Social-media users on both sides of the debate have directed 800 gun-related messages to him on Twitter in recent weeks, according to a review conducted for Bloomberg News by San Francisco-based Topsy, a social analytics company. More than 80 percent of those were pro-gun control.
Today, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania -- both NRA A-rated members -- announced a deal on background checks, proposing they be expanded to include Internet and gun show sales while not covering person-to-person firearms sales.
It’s unclear how the NRA will position itself on the negotiated language.
Manchin told reporters at a press conference today that he had been in “constant” communication with the NRA, yet does not know the organization’s position on the background checks deal. In a statement today, the NRA was critical of the plan, yet said the “overwhelming rejection” of President Barack Obama’s “’universal’ background check agenda is a positive development.”
The organization used similar language this morning when sending out a call to action by using social media. On Facebook, the NRA said senators should oppose “’universal’ background checks which would criminalize private firearm transfers” -- a measure that would be taken off the table if the Senate accepts the Toomey-Manchin deal.
Until now, the gun-rights lobbying group’s position had been one of total rejection of new gun-control laws; it asked its 5 million members to punish any member of Congress who pursues such legislation.
Arriving in Virginia mailboxes rather than in-boxes last month were mailers from the NRA, the Fairfax, Virginia based advocate for gun ownership rights.
One letter, labeled “priority communication,” urged members to “tell your Virginia politicians that there are thousands of gun owners standing ready to elect the Second Amendment’s allies and defeat her enemies!” A follow-up postcard links background checks for gun-buyers with the inevitability of a national gun registry -- something none of the pending measures include. “Please contact Senator Warner and encourage him to oppose this anti-freedom legislation.”
NRA Member Alan Morrison of Bristow, Virginia, heard that message and said he sent a letter to Warner, who is up for re-election next year.
“I will not vote for them if they infringe on my rights as a gun owner,” Morrison said on his way into Virginia Arms Co. in Manassas to pick up a handgun he had ordered. “I think of gun culture kind of like a religion. I adhere to the beliefs I learned as a child. People who haven’t grown up around guns don’t understand them.”
The citizen outreach -- stoked by the NRA, the pro-gun control Mayors Against Illegal Guns and other groups --reignited this week as Congress returned from a two-week spring break. Yesterday, the debate carried an emotional edge as families of the Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school shooting victims met privately with senators after flying into Washington on April 8 with the president.
“We bring a face to this tragedy,” said Mark Barden, whose 7-year-old son Daniel was killed. “We bring a very personal perspective. People should listen to what we have to say and move the debate forward. It’s not just about our tragedy. Lots of kids are killed every day in this nation. We have to help lead the change.”
Warner is a key participant in the debate because he expressed willingness to change gun laws after the Connecticut slaughter of first-graders, just as Manchin and Toomey did.
The intensity of the lobbying around the issue is in marked contrast to the last time Congress passed gun legislation, a 2008 law to prevent people with documented mental health issues from getting guns. Today’s debate also features the first head-to-head showdown between relatively new, anti-gun organizations and the 141-year-old NRA’s more experienced operation.
Miranda Bond, a coordinator at the NRA’s political arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, last month told a packed room of young people at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a gathering of Republican activist groups, that they needed to call their legislators, write newspaper editorials and attend town hall meetings to oppose new gun laws.
She encouraged them to stop by one of the NRA’s several booths at CPAC to fill out a postcard defending gun rights to mail to their senators. “These things work,” she told them.
The NRA also is trying to modernize its approach, she said, pointing to its YouTube channel. Three of the 10 most popular NRA-posted videos focus on Obama’s call for restrictions on assault-style weapons and broader background checks. Combined, they’ve been viewed more than 1 million times. Each ends with a request to call Congress.
The organization raises $200 million every year and spent more than $25 million in the 2012 federal elections. Its power rests in its ability to mobilize voters, NRA officials say in literature and in speeches.
“We have a politically savvy and a loyal voting bloc, and the politicians know that,” Andrew Arulanandam, spokesman for the NRA, told the Associated Press on March 28.
Gun owners also are much more likely than gun-control advocates to be single-issue voters, said Robert Spitzer, an author of four books on the history of gun control.
Outside Guns & Ammo Warehouse in Manassas, Philip Shaw of Woodbridge, Virginia, said a vote in favor of gun legislation such as those being discussed in Congress would be “a deal-breaker” the next time he heads to the ballot box.
He expressed particular disappointment in Warner.
“I’m a Republican, but I was not upset when Warner won,” Shaw said as he headed into the store to check out handguns. “But now on this gun issue, he just gets right in line with all of the other Democrats. It saddens me.”
Warner has said he supports expanded background checks, while not disclosing how he’d vote on a plan that includes record-keeping of those checks.
Kevin Hall, a spokesman for Warner, said the senator and his staff members have met with law enforcement officers, sportsmen and families of the victims of a mass-shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007. “People tend to have very strong views on every aspect of this debate, and he is doing a lot of listening,” Hall said in a telephone interview yesterday.
Virginia’s other senator, Democrat Tim Kaine, is considered a solid gun-control voter, helping him avoid some of the most intense lobbying. Kaine earned an “F” from the NRA and wrote yesterday in an editorial for the Virginian Pilot newspaper, that “the power of the organization’s leadership is vastly overrated.”
Kaine’s position is aligned with Americans for Responsible Solutions, which was formed by former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Democrat who was shot in 2011, and the mayors’ group.
The Mayors Against Illegal Guns organization spent $12 million on TV advertisements during the congressional break to pressure senators, including Democrat Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa.
The money came from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News’ parent Bloomberg LP. He also spent $10 million in federal elections this year and last, most of it aimed at defeating NRA-backed candidates.
Pryor, a Democrat who earned a “C-minus” from the NRA, said in a March 25 statement about the TV campaign: “I don’t take gun advice from the Mayor of New York City. I listen to Arkansans.”