Pro-gun Democrats shift their stance after massacre in Newtown

Several key Democrats on Monday said they were rethinking their opposition to gun control, in a sign that Friday's mass-murder in Connecticut has upended the congressional debate on firearms.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was among several Democratic defenders of gun rights to signal a new openness to legislative restrictions in the wake of the attack in Newtown, Conn.

“In the coming days and weeks, we will engage in a meaningful conversation and thoughtful debate about how to change laws and culture that allow violence to grow,” Reid said on the Senate floor. “We have no greater responsibility than keeping our most vulnerable and most precious resource — our children — safe. And every idea should be on the table as we discuss how best to do just that.”

The statement from Reid — who won praise from the National Rifle Association (NRA) in 2009 for helping to defeat renewal of the federal assault-weapons ban — was just one indication of a shifting political landscape on gun control.

Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Mark. Warner (D-Va.), both strong supporters of gun rights, indicated they could support federal gun-control measures as well. 

“I've been a strong supporter of Second Amendment rights,” Warner said Monday outside the Virginia Capitol, according to The Washington Post. “I’ve got an A rating from the NRA. But the status quo isn’t acceptable. I’ve got three daughters. They asked me on Friday evening, ‘Dad, what are you gonna do about this?’ There’s got to be a way to put reasonable restrictions, particularly as we look at assault weapons, as we look at these fast clips of ammunition.”

Manchin said the shooting rampage should cause every member of Congress to reconsider the legality of assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips. 

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“This awful massacre of our youngest children has changed us, and everything should be on the table,” he said in a statement. “I ask all of my colleagues to sit down with a seriousness of purpose to address the causes of these tragic crimes, including mental-health treatment, military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and our culture, which seems to glorify violence more than ever in our video games and movies.”

Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old man who attacked the Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, used a Bushmaster assault rifle, designed for urban combat, to execute his victims at close range with multiple high-powered shots before committing suicide, according to reports. 

In past years, Reid has stood apart from Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking Democratic leader, on gun control. Reid was endorsed by the NRA in 2004 and received money from the group in the 2010 election cycle, while Durbin and Schumer are two outspoken proponents of firearms restrictions. 

Reid might now be moving closer to Durbin and Schumer on the issue.

“It’s premature to conclude there is a divide now based on past statements, because Newtown changed everything,” said a senior Democratic aide.  

Moving Reid, who controls the Senate agenda, would be crucial to passing gun legislation through Congress. Any new initiative regulating guns and ammunition would have to start in the Senate, experts say. 

“The guy I think is pivotal on this is Harry Reid,” said former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who supported gun locks, the ban on assault rifles and closure of the so-called gun-show loophole when he served in the House. “If Reid were to move on this, I think it takes on a little bit of a different context.” 

Davis noted that Reid represents a state where guns are popular and must protect vulnerable colleagues who represent rural states with vibrant gun cultures in the 2014 election.

Democratic Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Mark Begich (Alaska), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Tim Johnson (S.D.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.) and Kay Hagan (N.C.) face reelection in 2014 in states with avid hunting cultures.

Ladd Everitt, director of communications at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said Manchin’s remarks were significant. 

“What Joe Manchin said was absolutely stunning,” he said. “Joe Manchin has never lifted a finger to address the issue of gun violence and he never made comments in the past that we would [have] deemed as favorable.” 

The NRA has suspended media interviews since the Newtown shootings and declined a request for comment.

Schumer said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday that the rampage in Newtown was a “tipping point” in the debate over gun control.

He listed three possible reforms: reinstating the 1994 federal assault-weapons ban, which expired in 2004; limiting the size of ammunition clips; and making it more difficult for people suffering from mental illness to acquire firearms. 

Democrats are lining up with their own proposals.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, on Sunday pledged to introduce legislation on the first day of the new Congress that would reinstate the federal ban on assault weapons. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) has promised to introduce legislation banning high-capacity gun magazines. 

Despite the new renewed political push on guns, Republicans who have supported gun-control efforts in the past warn it will not be easy to get legislation through the Senate or House.

“It depends what it is, but I think it’s going to be very difficult,” Davis said of the prospect of passing a gun-control bill through the House. “You want to see where Sen. Reid is on the Democratic side before anything else happens, and I think the House is tough. 

“It would have to come from president and the Senate before anything moves in the House, if it even has a shot,” he said.

Former Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who helped author the 1993 Gun Control Act and supported the reauthorization of the assault-weapons ban, said it would be tough to win support from Republicans and Democrats representing rural areas. 

“Republicans support it, and you’re not going to see a lot of Democrats west of the Mississippi support it,” he said. 

Shays says he has come to see the ban on assault weapons as ineffective. He said limiting the capacity of magazines and requiring people who purchase weapons at gun shows to undergo background checks would make more sense. 

“If I was honest with myself, I didn’t see any impact on crime,” he said of the assault weapons ban. “There should be support for some gun control, but assault weapons is not one of them. Gun shows, maybe the number of rounds in magazines, that kind of stuff has merit.”