- Associated Press - Saturday, June 25, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - During his re-election bid two years ago, Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor touted his opposition to legislation expanding background checks for firearms sales and wore the criticism he faced from gun control advocates as a badge of honor. His reward was being defeated by a Republican challenger who enjoyed an advertising blitz on his behalf by the National Rifle Association.

With ramped-up criticism of Republican Sen. John Boozman’s vote against an effort to keep terrorists from buying guns, Democratic challenger Conner Eldridge is testing how much Arkansas’ views of guns have changed since 2014’s high-profile campaign. It’s far from a full-throated endorsement of broader gun control, but it’s a subtle shift within a state Democratic Party that has traditionally been skittish about appearing anti-Second Amendment.

Eldridge, a former federal prosecutor who says he has a license to carry a concealed handgun, has focused on the issue in the wake of the mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub earlier this month that left 49 people dead. He says he would have supported a measure defeated in the Senate aimed at preventing terrorists from buying guns, arguing an alternate measure supported by Boozman doesn’t go far enough.

“We need to make sure that someone who’s been investigated by the FBI or is a suspected terrorist can’t buy a gun,” Eldridge told the Political Animals Club last week. “How is this even being debated? What is the objection here?”

Make no mistake, Eldridge isn’t embracing the gun control measures President Barack Obama and other top Democrats have been advocating after a series of mass shootings in recent years. He says he doesn’t support banning assault weapons and would have voted against an expanded background checks measure that also failed in the Senate last week.

Eldridge is trying to make his stance part of a bigger argument that Boozman hasn’t shown leadership during his time in Washington. Boozman’s campaign has accused Eldridge of politicizing the Orlando shooting with the issue.

The hope that this could provide an opening for an uphill battle to unseat Boozman in a solidly red state counts on attitudes shifting slightly here on guns as they’re moving more dramatically nationwide. But Eldridge is trying to avoid straying too far from a long line of Democrats in the state who have touted themselves as Second Amendment advocates.

Pryor used his first campaign ad two years ago to defend himself from gun control advocates who criticized him over his vote against expanded background checks. The criticism included ads by the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which was co-founded by then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“I’m committed to finding real solutions to gun violence while protecting our Second Amendment rights,” Pryor said in his ad. “I’m Mark Pryor, and I approve this message because no one from New York or Washington tells me what to do.”

The NRA, which had run radio ads thanking Pryor for his vote, eventually endorsed Republican challenger Tom Cotton. The group spent $1.3 million on TV ads backing Cotton, who defeated Pryor that fall.

Other Democrats have also presented themselves as gun rights champions. Former Gov. Mike Beebe toted a rifle in one of his first television ads in his 2006 race against Republican Asa Hutchinson and won the NRA’s backing in his re-election bid four years later. The NRA in 2006 endorsed Hutchinson, who went on to win the race for governor in 2014.

“We don’t need any more gun laws,” Beebe said in the 2006 ad. “We simply need to enforce the ones we’ve got.”

Former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, who lost his bid for governor against Hutchinson two years ago, also regularly portrayed himself as pro-gun and went so far as to invite the NRA in 2005 to hold its convention in Arkansas. The gun rights group had pulled out of Columbus, Ohio because of an assault weapon ban the city enacted that year.

Eldridge says his stance isn’t about infringing on gun rights and is about the best way to prevent an attack similar to Orlando’s, and says he will vigorously defend Arkansans’ Second Amendment protections.

“This isn’t about politics. This is about solutions,” Eldridge said earlier this month. “You don’t get to solutions by being silent and hoping no one asks you a question.”

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Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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