Vulnerable Senate Democrats are treading carefully on gun-control issues following the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a reflection of the tough position many will be in if Congress takes up major firearms legislation.
A number of Democrats from conservative, heavily rural states are up for reelection in 2014, and most have avoided discussing specifics on issues such as renewing a ban on assault weapons or limiting the size of ammunition clips during the renewed national focus on gun violence.
Democrats are defending Senate seats in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina and South Dakota — all GOP-leaning states where the NRA has a huge membership and most politicians of both parties oppose gun-control legislation. While some NRA-backed Democrats including Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) have publicly called for a conversation on gun control following the shootings, both just won reelection, making it much easier to take a political risk.
However, the debate could actually benefit some red-state Democrats. If a politician is looking for a way to publicly break with President Obama and the party in order to shore up independent bona fides, a high-profile vote on gun control could provide that opportunity.
According to a CNN poll released Wednesday, 62 percent of Americans support renewing the ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004, as well as a ban on high-capacity magazines. But in many states public sentiment isn’t as favorably disposed to gun regulations, and a Gallup poll released Wednesday found that just 42 percent of Americans thought an assault-weapons ban would be “very effective” in reducing the kind of violence seen in Newtown, Conn.
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who has an “A” rating from the NRA, is one Democrat who’s avoided discussing gun-control legislation.
When asked about Begich’s views on possible new gun regulations, a spokeswoman pointed The Hill to his previous statements calling for a renewed focus on mental health reform, as well as a local story in which he said legislators “need to focus on the broader issue of violence in this country and the need for mental health services.” The spokeswoman did not respond to follow-up questions.
Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), another red-state Democrat with an “A” rating from the NRA, took a similar stance, telling South Dakota reporters on Thursday that he wanted to hear the specifics of any proposed gun rules before weighing in.
"I'm open to the discussion of the gun issues and the mental health issues and the video game issues. I'm open to everything," he said, without advocating for any specifics.
"Hunting, target-shooting and gun ownership are important and positive parts of our tradition and culture in South Dakota," he continued. "I've long advocated for the safe, responsible use of firearms. But I have also fought to ensure that our mental health programs have the resources they need to be effective."
Johnson has not yet said whether he plans to run for another term, and if he doesn’t run, many expect his son, U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, to run instead. The younger Johnson declined to weigh in, telling the Sioux Falls Argus Leader in a statement that his job “is to enforce federal laws and not to participate in the policy debates upon which they’re based.”
One notable exception to the pattern of caution from senators up for reelection is Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a gun owner whom the NRA has given an “A” in its rankings. Warner said shortly after the shootings that “enough is enough” and called for “rational, appropriate gun rules” including a limit on the size of ammunition clips and a possible renewal of the assault-weapons ban. But Virginia has trended Democratic in recent years, and polls show Warner is by far the state’s most popular politician. Unless term-limited Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), a staunch Second Amendment advocate, decides to run against him, Warner is expected to have an easy path to reelection.
Other red-state senators are also taking a wait-and-see approach.
“I take my orders from Montanans and I won’t make any decisions without hearing from them first,” Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) told The Hill in a statement when asked what his views are on possible gun control.
Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) told The Hill in a statement that she’s not ruling out new legislation, but she noted a preference for a “comprehensive” approach.
“As we try to comprehend this overwhelming tragedy, it's important to make sure we have laws in place to prevent something like this from ever happening again. We need a common-sense debate on a comprehensive approach that looks at access to guns, including laws that may have already been on the books, access to mental health care, and violent video games,” Hagan said. “In the coming months I will review any proposals with an open mind, ensuring that they will improve the safety of our communities without restricting the rights of responsible gun owners as guaranteed by the second amendment.”
Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), both of whom have mixed ratings from the NRA, have not weighed in on the gun-control debate and their spokesmen did not return requests for comment.