“I see this whole gun issue as an opportunity, not a toxic landmine,” former President Bill Clinton told House Democrats last week. “I guarantee you, a lot of people from where I grew up were asking themselves this practical question: If that young man had had to load three times as often as he did, would all those children have been killed?”
In the Senate, at least 10 Democrats must defend their seats in 2014 in states with sizable gun-owning populations. Many of them have not taken positions in the gun debate, perhaps because they are struggling to find middle ground. But they also have not championed the NRA’s status-quo position, an indication that they might vote for expanded background checks or other measures.
“There may be substantive differences over things like assault weapons, but there’s no hostility, and there’s a genuine desire to work not only with Obama but to find Republican allies to work with as well,” said Matt Bennett, a senior vice president of Third Way, a centrist think tank.
At the moment, the political imperatives of Obama and those of Senate Democrats up for reelection are in conflict, something the president acknowledged last week when he addressed House Democrats at their annual retreat.
“There are regional differences here, and we should respect those,” Obama said. “Guns mean something different for somebody who grew up on a farm in a rural community and someone who grew up in the inner city.”
Consider Manchin, a gun rights advocate who signaled after Newtown that he might support some gun-control measures. Schumer quickly reached out to him, and their coalition grew to include Kirk and Coburn. The senators and their aides have been tight-lipped in recent days about their talks — a sign in Washington of progress behind the scenes.
One sticking point is Coburn’s desire to revamp how the Justice Department manages the system for background checks. Coburn also wants an exemption from background checks for people selling or giving their firearms to relatives, according to senior aides.
Another source of potential tension is the proposed ban on more than 150 military-style assault weapons, authored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Despite majority support for banning assault weapons in most polls, her bill faces long odds on Capitol Hill.
“I think we all know this is an uphill battle,” Feinstein said in a recent interview. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”
Congressional aides expect Feinstein to decide whether to ask Leahy to include her proposal as part of his guns bill or to have a separate up-or-down vote. Obama said last week that the proposal “deserves a vote in Congress, because weapons of war have no place on our streets.”
Gun control is a more emotional issue in the House. Some House members are gunshot survivors or, like Cummings, have personal ties to gun violence. Others, like Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), who fought in the Vietnam War and shoots for sport, are protective of gun culture.
“I’m a hunter and I’m a gun owner and I believe that we should protect law-abiding citizens’ rights to own firearms,” Thompson said last week. “I’m not interested in giving up my guns, and I wouldn’t ask anyone else to give up their guns.”