Swing-state Republicans play up efforts for gun control laws

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Republicans in critical down-ballot races are taking a page from the Democrats’ playbook: They are talking up gun control measures.

Republican incumbents have faced increasing pressure from both their Democratic opponents and colleagues in the Senate to act on gun control legislation, particularly in the wake of several mass shootings that have occurred since late last year.

{mosads}Many Republicans haven’t budged on Democrats’ calls to pass legislation, including barring suspected terrorists from purchasing firearms and expanding background checks.

But GOP incumbents facing reelection in tough battleground states are seeking to compromise on this issue, though Democrats are accusing them of addressing the issue only as a play for votes.

Still, political observers say it’s a sign of how much the gun debate has evolved over nearly two decades and this election cycle.

“It’s now become fashionable after 16 years for candidates to publicly talk about support for stronger gun laws,” said Robert Spitzer, author of the book “The Politics of Gun Control.”

“The big point is that this has become an issue that people are talking about in these campaigns and these state races.”

Last Thursday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) proposed a bill to prevent suspected terrorists from obtaining guns. His bill would mandate that the FBI director and the Joint Terrorism Task Forces be contacted when someone who’s been investigated for terrorism tries to purchase a firearm. The U.S. attorney general could “delay” the transaction for three days and file an emergency petition, and if it finds probable cause, arrest them.

Rubio said he’s keeping his word to Fred and Maria Wright, the parents of Jerry Wright, a victim at the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando that occurred in June. Following that shooting, a poll found that more than half of Americans backed stricter gun control laws.

“Today, I’m taking another step toward fulfilling my promise to the Wright family, by introducing legislation that builds on some of the best ideas that have been proposed, and improves them in ways that I hope will make a bipartisan solution more likely,” Rubio said in a statement, adding that the bill could “achieve everyone’s goals … without violating the due process and Second Amendment rights of innocent, law-abiding Americans.”

The campaign of his Senate reelection opponent, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D), quickly seized on the bill, calling it a “sham.” Murphy’s spokesman noted that it changes a part of Main Republican Sen. Susan Collins’s June compromise bill, which would allow an attorney general to deny that purchase. Her bill passed a test vote but has been stalled since.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a vocal proponent of gun control, slammed Rubio on Thursday in a series of tweets for voting against Collins’s bill. Rubio said in an interview from late June that he doesn’t “believe that guns are the cause of violence.”

Rubio’s bill “is just intended to be a footnote in a TV ad,” tweeted Murphy, who is of no relation to Rubio’s opponent.

Rubio and other swing-state Republican senators, including Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, are walking a fine line on the issue as they propose ways to curb gun violence while also protecting gun owners’ rights, an interest of the Republican base.

And prominent gun control groups point out there is an “increasing recognition that gun violence prevention isn’t just good policy, but is also the political high ground” among both major parties.

“You are increasingly seeing candidates running on this issue, and in some cases trying to get right on this issue,” said Mark Prentice, a spokesman with Americans for Responsible Solutions (ARS), which was founded by former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly.

“We are going to continue to talk to voters about what is truly effective gun violence prevention policy and what is a gun lobby-backed plan that masquerades as responsible policy.”

ARS has endorsed both Democrats and Republicans this cycle who support gun-related measures and has run an ad against Ayotte, who faces a tough race against Gov. Maggie Hassan (D), for not backing a bipartisan bill from several years ago on background checks.

Ayotte pushed back with her own ad that features local law enforcement saying she supports those checks. She also helped draft Collins’s compromise legislation.

One vulnerable Republican endorsed by Giffords’s group is Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, who co-sponsored legislation in 2013 with a Democratic senator to expand background checks for more gun sales.

Toomey has garnered endorsements from high-profile gun control groups and individuals, including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a leading advocate on the issue. His super PAC aired an ad featuring the daughter of the principal who died in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre and explained why she’s backing Toomey.

But his Democratic opponent, former gubernatorial chief of staff Katie McGinty, has countered this narrative by noting that Toomey opposed a Democratic measure from June that sought to prevent terrorists from buying guns. Toomey instead submitted an alternative bill on the issue.

In the lower chamber, GOP Florida Rep. David Jolly has been supportive of background checks and proposed his own legislation this summer to stop terrorists from obtaining firearms.

Last week, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence praised him for filing to co-sponsor a bill to expand background checks at gun shows and online.

This could potentially give Jolly a boost in his district, which has become more favorable to Democrats this year thanks to court-ordered redistricting. He faces a tough reelection against former Gov. Charlie Crist (D).

Jolly had been accused by the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) of lying to “60 Minutes” about a party mandate that members raise $18,000 every day, a criticism Jolly rejects.

While the NRCC has since called him a “strong advocate in Washington,” Jolly has tried to portray himself as independent, using a former President Truman quote in a recent campaign ad: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” He has continued to maintain that “members of Congress spend too much time raising money.”

While some GOP candidates are trying to branch out on the issue, political observers see little movement for Republicans like Rubio on gun control issues. But, they note, the fact that the party is addressing these issues shows progress in the future of the gun debate.

“The fact that they’re even proposing legislation, and they’re promoting it as part of their election campaigns, is novel and does show how much the gun debate is shifting,” said Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA.

Ben Kamisar contributed.

Tags Chris Murphy Kelly Ayotte Marco Rubio Susan Collins

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