Dems plan to make gun control an issue in Nevada

Sen. Dean Heller (Nev.), considered the most vulnerable Republican senator up for reelection next year, will be at the center of a new fight over gun control following the mass shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday that left at least 59 people dead.

Democrats and liberal activists plan to scrutinize Heller's record on gun control and his co-sponsorship of a controversial bill to deregulate suppressors as they seek to win his Senate seat in 2018.

Critics are already zeroing in on Heller's vote against popular legislation to expand background checks and limit ownership of assault rifles in 2013. They are also looking at his support for Senate Bill 59, which would ease regulations on suppressors, and Senate Bill 446, which would expand the right to carry concealed firearms.

"When we're done grieving, I think it's time to bring up the issue that certain politics are killing people in the United States," said Maria-Teresa Liebermann, the deputy director of Battle Born Progress, a progressive advocacy group based in Clark County, Nev.

"People not taking action on extended background checks, people constantly blocking any type of progress that we end gun violence," she added.

Heller on Monday flew back to his home state, missing afternoon votes and leaving colleagues uncertain about his return. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) also canceled events in Washington and flew back home Monday.

Heller spoke to Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) and state Attorney General Adam Paul Laxalt (R) early Monday morning, thanked police and first responders and urged people in Las Vegas to donate blood to help treat the more than 500 wounded or injured in the shooting.

"I will continue to monitor the situation as this horrific event unfolds. Lynne and I are praying for all of the victims and their families who are experiencing immense pain and grave, shocking loss that cannot be measured," he said in a statement Monday, referring to his wife.

Heller joined most Republicans in voting in April of 2013 against bipartisan legislation sponsored by Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to expand background checks.

A poll from October showed that 58 percent of respondents in Nevada supported expanded background checks, while only 32 percent opposed the idea.

Nevada voters passed a ballot initiative known as Question One last year that expanded background checks for private-party gun sales. Laxalt, however, has declined to implement the initiative because he says the FBI will not conduct the checks through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

"Gun violence has been a big issue here in Nevada," said Liebermann. "It's been addressed here locally and it's not being enforced."

The ballot initiative passed by a margin of 50.4 percent to 49.6.

Heller also opposed an amendment drafted by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to regulate rifles with military styling and another sponsored by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) to curb high-capacity magazines.

While Democrats think gun control could be a winning issue for them in some states, it also poses some political risks to the party.

Democrats are defending more than two-dozen seats in 2018, including 10 in states won by President Trump last year.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), one of those 10 Democrats, voted with Heller in 2013 against expanding background checks.

Most of the other nine Democrats, however, backed the measure sponsored by Manchin, who himself faces reelection next year in a state where Trump is popular.

Democratic Sens. Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Robert Casey (Pa.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) and Jon Tester (Mont.) all voted for the background checks legislation.

While Congress has made little progress in passing gun control bills in recent years, and even has appeared more inclined to loosen existing regulations, Democratic leaders think the politics of the issue are changing.

Democrats knocked former Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) out of office last year by attacking votes she cast against expanded background checks in 2013 and 2016.

Four years ago, Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said the country was on the verge of a "turning point" on gun control after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He said data showed voters "even in redder states" want "common sense measures."

"We should continue to take these legislators to task, and if they vote the wrong way, like Kelly Ayotte, they're going to be held accountable for those votes," said Christian Heyne, legislative director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

Heyne criticized Heller for what he called "a storied history of irresponsible votes and co-sponsorships," citing his votes against gun control measures in 2013 and his co-sponsorship this year of bills deregulating suppressors and concealed firearms.

Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas), a co-sponsor of the gun suppressor bill and the sponsor of the measure loosening restrictions on concealed weapons, said it was unseemly for some Democrats to be looking ahead to the political fight over gun control.

"Politicizing this terrible tragedy is beyond disgusting and I think we ought to wait a respectful period of time out of respect for the people who lost their lives or who have been injured before we get into the push and push of politics around here," he said. 

But Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) pushed back on the idea that it was too soon.

"For anyone who says this debate is too soon, it's already too late for at least 58 people in Las Vegas and hundreds of others who were wounded. We should not wait another day," he said.

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