Senators Reject Pressure for Gun Background Check Shift

U.S. senators are resisting pressure to reconsider their opposition to expanding background checks for firearm purchasers, a centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s bid for new gun-control measures.

Republican Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Democrats Max Baucus of Montana and Mark Begich of Alaska are among senators targeted in television ads or by protests outside their offices organized by groups supporting stricter gun laws.

In a fundraising letter yesterday, Ayotte said opponents “can’t bully me into changing my vote” against gun background checks. The opponents, she says, are Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The mayor, co-founder of Bloomberg LP, parent company of Bloomberg News, is co-chairman of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which announced a new TV ad this week challenging Ayotte.

The senators voted April 17 against legislation expanding firearms background checks to all commercial gun sales. Four Democrats -- including Baucus, Begich, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota -- voted with most of the Senate’s Republicans against the measure, which failed 54-46, as 60 votes were needed to pass it.

Republicans Dean Heller of Nevada and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska also face criticism for their votes against the bill, as advocates focus on lawmakers who might reconsider it.

NRA Opposition

The Senate vote scuttled a scaled-back version of the gun-control plan Obama proposed after the Dec. 14 shootings at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 20 children and six school employees. Parts of his plan, including a ban on assault weapons and size limits on ammunition magazines, were removed from the bill amid opposition by the National Rifle Association, the nation’s largest gun lobby.

Pryor, a Democrat seeking re-election in 2014 in a state that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won last year by 24 percentage points, said his position on background checks hasn’t changed since the April 17 vote.

He said he “really hadn’t had a lot of conversations” with supporters who might want to revive the legislation.

In her letter, Ayotte, who has been singled out more than other Republican opponents of the measure, said she won’t change her vote “because this legislation would have gone too far in restricting the Constitutional rights of law-abiding gun owners, while doing nothing to prevent a deranged individual or criminal from obtaining and misusing firearms to commit horrific tragedies like the one in Newtown.”

Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican who suggested that his declining poll ratings since the background check vote liken him to “pond scum,” said he remains firmly opposed to an expansion of background checks.

‘Not Reconsidering’

“It’s too close to universal,” Flake told reporters at the Capitol on May 7. “It defines commercial sales far too broadly, and I’m not reconsidering my vote on that.”

Flake said he doubted supporters of the failed proposal “could change it sufficiently because they’d lose votes on the left.”

“I’m comfortable where I am,” he said. “I don’t feel a need to change for political reasons.”

“Nothing has changed from my no vote,” said Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson, another Republican criticized.

Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virgina, a sponsor of the background-check proposal, has been seeking to persuade senators who voted against the measure to change their votes or accept revisions to the amendment to win them over.

Congress is now turning its focus to an immigration law revision that members of both parties are pressing, which means any effort to revive gun legislation will be overshadowed.

‘Doubt It’

Reid, asked by reporters yesterday whether he might bring up the background-check legislation in June, said, “I doubt it,” because the Senate needs to work on immigration.

Still, he said, he wants to return to the legislation.

“We’re going to come back to that. Ninety percent of the American people support that,” Reid said, referring to opinion polls showing widespread public support for expanding background checks.

In the past few weeks, including a week-long congressional recess, Mayors Against Illegal Guns has run ads targeting Ayotte, the one senator from New England to oppose the plan, and sent survivors of gun violence and their family members to town hall meetings to confront her and other lawmakers.

Organizing for Action, an outgrowth of Obama’s 2012 campaign, held a series of “Shame on You” protests at senators’ offices in seven states and is planning another round for Mother’s Day this weekend.

Montana Ads

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee has run newspaper ads, including in 13 Montana newspapers, against the four Democrats who voted against the measure. On May 1, the group announced a $50,000 spot featuring a Montana grandmother admonishing Baucus. Days after the vote, Baucus announced he wouldn’t seek re-election to the Senate in 2014.

No plans to advance another gun measure have been announced in the Senate. Illinois Senator Richard Durbin, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat and a supporter of the legislation, said “conversations continue at a lot of different levels” in an attempt to build support. “But I can’t tell you there’s been any breakthroughs.”

A Democratic aide who asked not to be identified because the discussions aren’t public said Manchin is stepping up his efforts over the next several weeks to meet with senators who voted against the legislation.

Possible Changes

Manchin, in an earlier interview, said some senators might be open to reconsidering their no votes with changes to the measure, such as exceptions to background checks for families who trade guns through Internet transactions. Another he’s considering would exempt individuals who live in rural areas who purchase guns over the Internet.

Still, some of the senators whom the changes are meant to persuade say the revisions don’t go far enough or that they haven’t had any detailed discussions about them.

Murkowski said she hadn’t had a conversation “of substance” with Manchin about potential changes, including the rural exemption that Democrats are considering to try to win her vote and that of Begich, also of Alaska.

‘Not Convinced’

“Then you basically have a two-tiered system in a state like mine, and folks are looking at that and saying, ‘You know, that doesn’t necessarily make sense either,’” Murkowski said. “I’m not convinced that that actually gets us there.”

Pryor said he doesn’t have a “definitive list” of things he wants changed in the bill. “I’ve told all the senators working on this issue that if they want to make changes or draft new legislation, I’ll certainly look at it,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ayotte, who has faced the brunt of protests and advertisements, has made it clear she isn’t changing her position. In her fundraising letter, she said Bloomberg and Obama “are doing everything they can to damage me politically for not supporting their agenda.”

In an opinion editorial that ran May 7 in New Hampshire newspapers, Ayotte accused “out-of-state special interests” of running “false ads” misconstruing her “efforts to prevent gun-related violence.”

“The focus should be on fixing the existing system, which criminals are flouting,” Ayotte wrote. “We need to make sure we are enforcing current law and prosecuting those who attempt to illegally obtain firearms.”

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