President Obama and his allies in Congress have given the gun lobby a string of victories - from forgoing new gun laws to easing restrictions already on the books - since Mr. Obama took office and Democrats assumed complete command of political power in Washington.
Democratic leaders in Congress tend to support more restrictive gun laws but have yielded on the issue since a majority of their rank-and-file members increasingly side with the National Rifle Association (NRA) when votes involve the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.
Gun-control groups blame the Obama White House for the setbacks, saying the administration kept mum on firearms issues even when shooting incidents killed six at a North Carolina nursing home in March and left 13 dead at an upstate New York immigration center in April.
“I’m disappointed that they didn’t use some leadership after the shootings in March and April to at least talk about the need to deal with this,” said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
“They just don’t want to talk about it right now,” he said.
The NRA gained a major victory when Mr. Obama backed off from a push to reinstate a ban on assault weapons, even as top Democrats and administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, endorsed the ban.
On Friday, Mr. Obama signed a bill with a provision lifting the prohibition on bringing loaded firearms into national parks and wildlife refuges.
Mr. Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress were forced to accept the gun amendment, which was sponsored by Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, to a bill that added protections to consumers in credit card contracts.
The ease with which the bill sailed through the Democrat-led Congress to the ready pen of Mr. Obama gave a rude awakening to gun-control activists as the gun lobby secured a win that eluded it when Republicans ruled Washington.
Mr. Obama last month sought to appease gun-control advocates by calling for the Senate to ratify the Inter-American Convention on small-arms trafficking, a measure meant to stem the cross-border flow of black-market guns and ammunition.
But the treaty, which has languished in the Senate since 1997, received a cool reception from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“We must work with Mexico to curtail the violence and drug trafficking on America’s southern border, and must protect Americans’ Second Amendment rights,” said Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat. “I look forward to working with the president to ensure we do both in a responsible way.”
Mr. Reid, whose popularity at home is tenuous, faces a tough re-election race next year in his pro-gun Western state.
The NRA’s prowess at bending the will of lawmakers also was on display when a bill that would give the District a voting member in Congress stalled because House Democratic leaders could not thwart an amendment that would repeal most of the District’s strict gun laws.
The legislation has been shelved in the House since early March.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, acknowledged that a majority of lawmakers in both chambers agree with NRA positions, but he insisted that those members of Congress do not “feel obligated to the NRA.”
“I don’t think [gun lobbyists] have gotten what they want, any time they want it,” he told reporters at the Capitol last week. He said the recent NRA victories were all on the edges of the gun-law debate.
Attaching pro-gun amendments to bills unrelated to firearms laws, Mr. Hoyer said, is a strategy with significant limitations, especially under House rules that require an amendment to be germane to the underlying bill.
Still, there are signs that the influence of anti-gun groups on Democrats has been waning for years.
In the 2000 Democratic presidential primary, Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley vied for the title of “gun-control candidate.” But by the time Mr. Gore emerged as the nominee, he largely dropped the gun-control rhetoric for the general election campaign.
In 2004, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry was posing with shotgun in hand at an Ohio duck hunt to improve his electoral odds. And last year, as Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton vied for the party’s presidential nomination, they crisscrossed Pennsylvania and the West competing to be the most gun-loving Democrat on the ballot.
“I think there is a realization that it is bad politics to be on the wrong side of the gun issue,” NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said. “Politicians realize that whether they are on Capitol Hill or in state legislatures or in governors’ mansions … that American voters are lined up with the National Rifle Association.”
He said the group must continue to counter powerful opposition in the highest levels of government, including calls to renew an assault-weapon ban coming from Mrs. Clinton, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat.
The Brady Campaign’s Mr. Helmke said the current political climate probably marks a “high tide” for the NRA.
“They know the White House is not going to be giving them any of the proactive things they want,” said Mr. Helmke, a Republican who was mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind., for 12 years before joining the gun-control fight full time.
He predicted an eventual political “backlash” against loosening firearms laws. He said he hoped the shift would coincide with White House-backed legislation expected in the fall that would mandate background checks at gun shows and crack down on corrupt firearms dealers and illegal gun trafficking.
But as the administration and Democratic lawmakers mull new firearms restrictions, polls continue to show that most voters don’t want more gun-control laws.
A CNN poll last month showed that 39 percent of Americans favor stricter gun laws, a number that has been steadily on the decline since the 1990s. The poll also found that about 46 percent of Americans do not want changes to current gun laws, and 15 percent want gun laws made less restrictive.
Steven A Miller
By Andrew P. Napolitano
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