By Mike Lillis and Amie Parnes - 02/05/13 10:00 AM EST
Gun control advocates are corralling votes by trying to make life miserable for Democrats they think are too cozy with the National Rifle Association.
The advocates are bankrolling a series of ads that attack Democrats wary of new restrictions as the first phase of a two-part strategy intended to help the party enact President Obama’s gun proposals.
While gun control supporters see Republican opposition to new restrictions as the highest hurdle confronting Obama’s reform wish list, they believe they must unite Democrats behind those proposed reforms in the early stages of the debate to build momentum — as well as pressure on the GOP.
The Democratic strategist compared the campaign to the efforts of anti-tax groups like Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, which have been largely successful in rallying Republicans against new taxes, with a plan to use that united front to pressure Democrats to take the same position.
“Think about that happening the other way,” the strategist said.
“There didn’t used to be a penalty for being an anti-public-safety Democrat,” the strategist added. “Now there is.”
The urgency from gun-control advocates comes as Obama applied pressure in his own way on Monday, taking the issue on the road for the first time.
During remarks at the Minneapolis Police Department’s Special Operations Center, Obama renewed his calls for bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, telling a crowd of law enforcement officials that while legislation might not be able to prevent every massacre or random shooting, “if there’s even one thing we can do, if there’s just one life we can save, we’ve got an obligation to try.”
“We don’t have to agree on everything to agree it’s time to do something,” the president said. “That’s my main message here today.”
The reforms have a difficult road ahead, particularly in the GOP-controlled House, where provisions like the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines are non-starters for many lawmakers. Obama appeared to concede as much Monday, focusing his speech on the effort to install universal background checks, which stands a better chance of passage. He argued the “vast majority” of Americans — including a majority of gun owners — “support criminal background checks on anyone trying to buy a gun.”
“That’s common sense,” he said. “There’s no reason we can’t get that done. That is not a liberal idea or a conservative idea. It’s not a Democratic or Republican idea. That is a smart idea. We want to keep those guns out of the hands of folks who shouldn’t have them.”
Although the Newtown, Conn., shooting massacre last year has caused many gun-friendly Democrats to change their tune and call for tougher gun laws, there are a number of others who remain wary — if not outwardly critical — of Obama’s gun-control push. It’s these Democrats who are being targeted by the reform advocates.
The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV), for instance, launched a series of newspaper ads last month critical of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who had characterized Obama’s gun proposals as “extreme.”
In response, Heitkamp’s office issued a statement saying Congress has “a responsibility to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill, while protecting the rights of law abiding gun owners.” Her office rejected the notion that she’d changed her position, but the tone of the statement was noticeably softer than her earlier criticism.
The coalition has also targeted Rep. John Barrow (Ga.), another Democrat who’s been critical of Obama’s recent push for gun control. In a video released last month, CSGV highlighted Barrow’s close ties to the NRA and urged viewers to call his office to voice their support for tougher laws.
“You have to get your allies’ allies on board before you start taking on the opposition,” Josh Horwitz, CSGV’s executive director, said by phone Monday. “To win these things we’re going to have to have most Democrats on board.”
Horwitz’s group is hardly alone. Independence USA, the super-PAC created by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), has launched an ad campaign against former Rep. Debbie Halvorson (D-Ill.), who’s running this year in a special election to replace former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.).
“Watch out for Debbie Halvorson. When she was in Congress before, Halvorson got an A from the NRA,” the ad’s narrator says. “Debbie Halvorson: when it comes to preventing gun violence, she gets an F.”
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) has also been the target of liberal gun-control advocates. After issuing a statement last month indicating that he supports “the principle that we should reinstate a ban on assault weapons,” Franken was hammered by MSNBC’s Ed Schultz for prevaricating on the issue.
“Can we get some straight talk?” Schultz asked during his namesake program last month. “Because that ‘in principle’ kind of thing leaves a little wiggle room that maybe you might not do it, Al.”
Franken, who is up for reelection next year in a gun-friendly state, has since endorsed the assault-ban legislation sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and on Monday he joined Obama at a Minneapolis rally for tougher gun laws.
White House officials said Monday that Obama chose Minnesota to deliver his remarks because of the state’s success in curbing gun violence, especially because of background checks. At the same time, the Democratic strategist surmised that Obama chose Minnesota because it’s a solid Blue state with a strong hunting tradition.
“You’re not just preaching to the choir in New York,” the strategist said, “but it’s not hostile territory, either.”
The Newtown massacre has altered the dynamics of the gun-control debate dramatically, with a number of pro-gun Democrats — including Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Mark Warner (Va.), and Reps. John Yarmuth (Ky.) and Peter Welch (Vt.) — suggesting that tougher gun laws are worth another look if Congress hopes to keep weapons out of the hands of violent people.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) said Monday that Obama’s push for tougher gun laws — the most aggressive from a sitting president in a generation — is a game-changer that could force the hand of wary lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
“He needs to keep talking to the public. He needs to talk to the people who write the letters and make the calls to members of Congress,” Ellison said in an interview with MSNBC ahead of Obama’s speech. “It’s going to be hard. But I think that the president’s wise to fight for it anyway.”