The Senate’s upcoming vote on the assault weapons ban is going to put vulnerable Democrats in a difficult spot.
Democrats facing tough reelection races will either attract the ire of the National Rifle Association or prominent gun control activists such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I). A vote against the ban could spark primary challenges that could weaken Democrats in the general election.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) this week decided to remove the ban from firearms legislation scheduled for the floor. However, he has promised Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) a floor vote on her assault weapons amendment.
Reid said Tuesday the proposal would not muster 40 votes, and interviews with rank-and-file lawmakers show that seems accurate.
A wave of Democratic defections on the assault weapons ban would not sit well with gun-control and liberal advocacy groups. They warn Democratic senators who vote to kill one of President Obama’s biggest priorities will suffer political repercussions.
“People are not going to say, ‘That’s a tough vote for them, let’s not do anything,’ ” said Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “There is a feeling that to win this thing we need all the Democrats. That means people who are in tough races in 2014 don’t get passes. I would expect issue ads and advocacy for all senators.”
Even Democrats who reliably vote with their leadership, such as Sens. Mark Warner (Va.), Tim Kaine (Va.) and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), on Wednesday said they were not certain they would support the assault weapons ban. Warner faces reelection in 2014. Kaine, who formerly headed the Democratic National Committee, was on Obama’s short list to be his running mate in 2008.
A spokesman for Stabenow told The Hill on Thursday that his boss plans to vote for the assault weapons ban.
Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, warned that Democrats who vote against the assault weapons ban could depress liberal turnout in the 2014 midterm election.
“With guns, it will be a major election issue for Democrats. Opposing strong gun laws could mean depressing their base, which in the off year would be a very bad idea,” Green said.
He said if any Democratic primary challengers emerge, votes against gun laws could become lines of attack.
“If there is a credible primary challenger, a vote against strong gun laws would absolutely hurt an incumbent Democrat,” he said.
Of the six Democratic senators facing reelection in states carried by Mitt Romney, only Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) faces the slim threat of a credible primary challenger. Former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) raised eyebrows last month when his staff touted a poll showing him leading Baucus by almost 20 points in a hypothetical match-up.
Considering Montana is one of the most pro-gun states in the country, it’s debatable how much traction a challenger could gain against Baucus by attacking his votes on gun-violence legislation. Schweitzer is a gun rights advocate whose reelection campaign was endorsed by the NRA in 2008.
Gun control groups have already flexed their muscle in House Democratic primaries. Independence USA, a PAC backed by Bloomberg, poured $2 million into a special election in Illinois’s 2nd district to defeat former Rep. Debbie Halvorson (D).
Independence USA spent more than $3 million in California to defeat Rep. Joe Baca, a pro-gun Democrat, in 2012.
Voting for the assault weapons ban poses the bigger immediate threat to vulnerable Democrats such as Sens. Mark Begich (Alaska), Tim Johnson (S.D.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.). The NRA would rip any centrist Democrats — or Republicans — who support the assault weapons ban.
“There will be ramifications for elected officials who support gun bans. Our position is unequivocal. We do not support gun bans as a matter of policy or effective way of controlling guns,” said Chris Cox, executive director of the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action.
The NRA spent about $20 million on the 2010 midterm election, including spending on communications to its members. It spent more than $25 million in the 2012 election.
Reid, who earned praise from the NRA in 2009 for shutting down an effort to revive the assault weapons ban, might be tempted to shelve the assault weapons ban altogether.
But Feinstein has warned this would be a “major betrayal.”
“Not to give me a vote on this would be a major betrayal of trust, as I would see it,” Feinstein told CNN on Tuesday.
“What Sen. Reid told me is that I would have an opportunity for a vote. I take him at his word. I told him also that it would be my intention to separate out the prohibition on the future manufacture, transfer, sales, possession of large ammunition-feeding devices of more than 10 bullets,” she said.
A vote is highly likely, given that Obama has prodded Congress by saying the victims’ families of the Newtown, Conn., massacre “deserve a vote.” Furthermore, the White House this week vowed to continue to urge senators to vote for the assault weapons ban.
Feinstein on Wednesday reiterated her confidence about getting votes on the assault weapons ban and a stand-alone measure to limit high-capacity ammunition clips.
With the assault weapons ban facing daunting odds, gun-control advocacy groups are turning their focus to legislation expanding background checks.
“The background-check legislation has always been the biggest policy fix. It has the best politics attached to it and it’s our biggest priority,” said Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, another group backed by Bloomberg.
“We’re going to spend the recess period and the months after with several dozen field staff in key states holding events, doing petition drives, making sure senators are hearing every day from chiefs of police, mayors and survivors of gun violence that it’s time to act,” he said.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), along with Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), have been shopping a proposal that would expand background checks to cover private sales. To entice broader Republican support, it would allow rural gun-owners to conduct background checks from home computers and create an appeals process for military veterans who are declared mentally unfit to own firearms.
The background check bill sponsored by Schumer, which passed the Judiciary Committee last week and which Senate aides describe as a placeholder, has a minuscule chance of garnering the needed 60 votes.