After years of losing, gun control advocates say this week’s vote on confirming Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court will be their long-awaited win that shatters conventional wisdom and proves that the Second Amendment is no longer the unstoppable force of Washington politics.
Proponents of gun control say the National Rifle Association (NRA) and similar groups have overreached. They point to a Senate vote last month blocking an effort to expand concealed-carry laws.
“The lesson that’s going to come out of this is you can vote against the NRA and still win, and win in gun-friendly areas,” said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the nation’s leading gun control group, which is billing this week’s vote as a chance to defeat the NRA.
Gun rights supporters dismissed suggestions that they’ve lost their long hold on the Capitol. The NRA’s spokesman dared lawmakers to test Second Amendment voters at their “own peril.”
Since the 2000 elections, few lawmakers have bucked gun advocacy groups, and the NRA in particular. The powerful lobby had proved too often that it could swing elections in battleground states simply by sending its traditional election-time blaze-orange postcards telling voters how their elected officials scored on gun rights.
When an effort by Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican, to expand reciprocity for concealed-carry laws throughout the nation failed July 22 to overcome a filibuster in a 58-39 vote, gun control groups said they’d made a dent. This week, they expect Judge Sotomayor to be confirmed to the Supreme Court despite the vocal opposition of the NRA and Gun Owners of America (GOA).
The NRA said the Thune amendment vote should be cold comfort to gun control groups.
“Only the Brady Campaign will try to spin getting 39 votes in the U.S. Senate as a resounding victory,” said Andrew Arulanandam, the NRA’s spokesman.
He said gun rights remain as potent an issue as ever.
Some Second Amendment supporters say that defeating Judge Sotomayor’s nomination is not central to their mission, and that it was the wrong time to stage a fight.
The Brady Campaign counts seven NRA-backed senators who have said they would vote to confirm the judge.
“I think the NRA at some point has gone beyond its mission, and are perhaps allowing themselves to get hijacked by those who are in the extreme,” Sen. Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat, told the Hill newspaper.
Blogs on gun ownership also have debated the NRA’s decision to take a stand on Judge Sotomayor, saying her confirmation is not directly related to their issue.
Gun rights groups said they realize some senators won’t see Judge Sotomayor’s nomination as a firearms issue.
“Any Supreme Court justice is an uphill battle because a lot of people put the issues on hold in their mind and they say, well, the president deserves their pick,” said Erich Pratt, a GOA spokesman.
Still, the groups questioned Judge Sotomayor’s judicial philosophy on guns, based on her answers during the Senate confirmation hearings, saying that alone was reason to get involved.
Mr. Pratt said some lawmakers who have had perfect ratings with the GOA will end up losing that distinction because of their Supreme Court vote. He said GOA is considering double-weighting the vote on Judge Sotomayor.
The NRA gives out a letter grade, and it’s unclear how the Sotomayor vote will affect the group’s ratings - particularly if other votes occur, such as efforts to renew the 1994 weapons ban law.
The NRA and GOA point to two events this year in Congress that they say show that the gun issue still resonates with lawmakers.
Gun rights supporters won a key fight over an amendment proposed by Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, to allow guns to be carried in national parks as long as state and local laws don’t prohibit it.
Democratic leaders scuttled their own bill to grant a voting member of the U.S. House to D.C. residents after a gun rights amendment was attached in the Senate and had enough support to pass the House.
House Democratic leaders couldn’t figure out a way to strip off the amendment because the committee with jurisdiction had too many Democrats who support gun rights.
The specter of increased gun control also can scuttle legislation. A Western Hemisphere treaty that President Obama wants the Senate to ratify is unlikely to come up for a vote because pro-gun Democrats are wary of crossing the NRA.
Clear pro-gun majorities emerged in Congress after Republicans won both chambers in 1994, but have extended even under Democratic control.
Since the 2000 presidential election, which analysts said Democratic nominee Al Gore lost at least partly because of his support for gun control, the issue has been considered untouchable.
The Democratic Party’s 2004 nominee, Sen. John Kerry, went so far as to stage a late-campaign duck hunting trip in Ohio to try to boost his prospects, and Democratic leaders in Congress have tamped down on talk of passing gun control measures such as a renewal of the 1994 law that banned certain semiautomatic weapons.
But Mr. Helmke of the Brady Campaign said the last two elections have been eye-openers for lawmakers wary of crossing the NRA. He said in races in which the NRA and the Brady Campaign endorsed candidates, Brady-backed candidates won the vast majority - proving that gun rights groups can be bucked.
“The fact that they haven’t had a major electoral victory in the last two cycles is starting to translate into less clout on the Hill,” he said.
He said the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling overturning Washington’s gun control law moved the debate into a new area, where the issue is less about fundamental constitutional principles and more about practical controls.
“The gun issue is becoming less and less of a wedge issue,” he said. “We’re seeing more and more of a consensus in the middle ground.”
But Mr. Arulanandam of the NRA said lawmakers should be wary of thinking their constituents no longer care about the gun issue: “Any politician who follows Mr. Helmke’s so-called words of wisdom does so at his own peril.”
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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