Politics shapes US gun debate endgame

2013-02-05 22:26
Barack Obama (Picture: AFP)

Barack Obama (Picture: AFP)

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Washington - The endgame of the US gun control debate is coming into focus, with a consensus forming around steps likely to fall short of the sweeping reform vision favoured by President Barack Obama.

Plans for action on tightening background checks for gun owners appear are gathering pace, and some sources close to the debate detect momentum behind idea of reducing the size of lethal high capacity magazine clips.

But hopes for a renewal of a ban on new assault weapons are fading owing to staunch Republican opposition and the plight of moderate Senate Democrats facing re-election in 2014 in pro-gun states.

Obama, who has already signed off on executive actions to improve gun safety, is trying to maintain the urgency behind reform efforts in Congress, launched amid the horror of the Newtown school massacre last year.

"The good news is that we're starting to see a consensus emerge about the action Congress needs to take," Obama said in Minnesota on Monday, mentioning efforts to close background check loopholes and to halt gun trafficking.

But Obama appeared to prepare the ground for reforms that his administration could portray as meaningful but still fall short of his call for a renewal of the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004.

"We don't have to agree on everything to agree it is time to do something," Obama said, while calling for the assault weapons ban bill to get a vote.

Obama repeatedly says only public opinion can force action, but it does not appear that the shocking killings of 20 children and six adults in Newtown provoked the sudden sea change in gun politics that many advocates hoped for.

Recent polls do show rising support for efforts to tighten gun laws, including a renewal of the assault weapons ban and measures to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally unstable.

And the image of the National Rifle Association, the top gun lobby group, may have been jolted, but at 41% in a recent NBC poll, its approval rating was higher than that of Hollywood and Congress.

But gun politics remains treacherous, as evidenced in the tight-rope walked by Democratic Senate Majority leader Harry Reid on Fox News Sunday.

Background checks

Reid pledged action on background checks, and hinted that he might consider steps to limit high capacity magazines but offered little sign he thought that Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein's assault weapons ban bill could pass.

Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, was quoted in Tuesday's New York Times as seeing a "convergence" of support around universal background checks, but said assault weapons must also be discussed.

But lawmakers are more likely to be influenced by political self preservation rather than morals.

Often, the gun control debate splits not on party lines, but on fault lines between large cities, like New York or Chicago where gang violence is rife and rural, pro-hunting, pro-gun areas.

For this reason, the administration has been careful to insist that it bears no malice to the constitutional right to bear arms, and even released a picture of Obama skeet shooting at Camp David.

Top officials have also pitched their campaign as an attempt to improve safety and protect children, rather than an effort to grab guns.

"The administration knows that a gun safety narrative is probably going to play better than a gun control narrative," said Jonathon Schuldt, a communications professor at Cornell University.

Republican opposition to an assault weapons ban is firm in the Senate, and it seems unlikely majority Democrats could build a simple majority in the 100 seat chamber for such a measure.

The slate of Democratic-held Senate seats up for grabs in mid-term elections in 2014 contains several where a vote for gun control could be damaging.

Against weapons ban

Alaska Senator Mark Begich has already come out against an assault weapons ban.

In Louisiana, Virginia and Montana, which all have heavy gun ownership, senators Mary Landrieu, Mark Warner and Max Baucus risk inciting the power of the firearms lobby if they vote for gun control amid re-election campaigns.

Sources familiar with the administration's gun push admit that the assault weapons ban is a tough sell under current political conditions.

But action on fast-firing clips does appear to have some traction - and a scenario in which pro-gun senators oppose an assault weapons ban for political reasons but vote to limit the size of magazines is still seen as possible.

Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar, who accompanied Obama to her home state on Monday, said polling numbers on background checks and high capacity magazines are robust.

"Some people say, 'oh, it's just a blip after every tragedy, but there continues to be some common support for that’," she said.

But regarding an assault weapons ban, Klobuchar said: "I don't have a crystal ball."

Read more on:    nra  |  barack obama  |  us  |  us school shooting  |  gun control
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