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New Gun Laws' Chief Enemy: Democratic Senators

NRA plans 'fight of the century' as Obama announces new measures, but is real obstacle closer to home than gun lobbyists and Republicans in the House?

- Jon Queally, staff writer

President Obama announced his plan for stricter gun safety laws on Wednesday, saying that while some of his approach would be instituted by executive order much of the broader strokes would necessarily have to pass through Congress if they were to become law.

Meanwhile, at the nation's largest gun show taking place in Las Vegas this week, talk swirled about how the National Rifle Association was plotting 'the fight of the century' against any efforts in Washington to pass new legislation that would potentially injure the bottom line of the gun industry they so elegantly serve.

Gun safety advocates applauded Obama's speech while the predictable detractors were apoplectic and irrational about the announcement's implications.

To give a sense of national opinion, a Washington Post-ABC News poll on Monday showed 58 percent of adults and 59 percent of registered voters support a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons.

"The smart analysis says that the chances of Congress passing serious gun control legislation decrease by the day." –Harry Enten

But amid all the fanfare and talk about 'Obama vs. the NRA' or 'Obama vs. the House Republicans' it seems, by many accounts, that the largest obstacle to pushing through the proposed measures—no matter how modest they are in most regards—will be members of his own party.

During Wednesday's televised remarks that followed an introduction by his vice president Joe Biden, Obama said that together they would do everything they could to pass the plans set forth, but took special care to mark what is surely the most essential reality of the fight brewing over guns in Washington, by telling his audience—the American people—that moving even the modest measures he proposed forward would not be possible unless "the American people demand it."

"And by the way, that doesn’t just mean from certain parts of the country," Obama added, seeming to acknowledge the magnitude of difference between passing gun control laws in a place like New York versus a state like West Virginia or Montana. That said, it is powerful Democrats in those states that are likely to be political obstacles to new guns laws, not their champions.

"We’re going to need voices in those areas and those congressional districts where the tradition of gun ownership is strong to speak up and to say this is important. It can’t just be the usual suspects," he continued.  "We have to examine ourselves in our hearts, and ask yourselves what is important?"

"If parents and teachers, police officers, and pastors, if hunters and sportsman, if responsible gun owners, if Americans of every background stand up and say, enough. We’ve suffered too much pain, and care too much about our children to allow this to continue, then change will -- change will come."

But, as many political observers point out, the rhetoric of gun safety laws comes easy—perhaps more easy from one of the most eloquent politicians in American history—but perhaps too easy when it comes to glossing over the political realities that reside fully and deeply, as the facts show, within the president's own Democratic party.

As Politico reports, the Democrat-controlled Senate is likely to give Obama tremendous problems when he turns to it to re-instate an assault weapons ban:

...other than background checks, it’s not at all clear whether Senate Democrats will hold votes on any other piece of the Obama plan, most notably on the assault weapons ban. Reid — who benefited when the National Rifle Association stayed out of his 2010 reelection contest — threw cold water on passing an assault-weapons ban in a recent televised interview.

And political analyst Harry Enten at The Guardian writes:

I can't imagine a senator from a red state, especially one in which there are more guns per household than the national average, wanting to go up against a barrage from pro-gun forces.

That's why Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska, and Tim Johnson of South Dakota all have A ratings from the NRA. They all come from states ranked third or fourth in gun ownership – at least 57% of households have a gun in the home. Baucus voted against a renewal of the assault weapons ban in 2004; Begich said he'd vote against it even after Newtown; and Johnson has seen his NRA grade go from a C+ in 2003 to an A, with an NRA endorsement, during his 2008 re-election fight.

The electoral prospects for each man adds to the unlikelihood that any will cast a vote in favor of serious gun control legislation. According to Public Policy Polling (PPP), Baucus has a net approval rating of -3pt and leads a generic Republican candidate by only 3pt. Begich won election 2008 by only 1pt and is rated as "vulnerable" by the Cook Political Report, which also pegs Johnson as the incumbent most likely to lose in 2014.

Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, too, is likely a goner on serious gun control legislation, despite a C from the NRA. She voted against renewing the assault weapons ban in 2004, and pretty much every other gun control measure of the past eight years. She won re-election in 2008 by six points – against a relatively weak opponent and in a state that voted for Romney by 17pt. She is "at risk" per the Cook Political Report. In Louisiana, 44% of households have a gun, 14th most in the nation.

Given the popular support for better gun safety laws, it's likely that some legislation will pass, but when it comes to the measures that safety advocates say would have the most impact—banning semi-automatic assault rifles and large ammunition clips—Sean Sullivan at the Washington Post puts likelihood of that passage at a mere fifty percent.

And Enten, even less optimistic, concludes: "the smart analysis says that the chances of Congress passing serious gun control legislation decrease by the day. The House is a foregone conclusion. When all these numbers start getting added together, I'm not even sure you can find a simple majority of senators to agree on tougher gun control."

With that in mind, it's worth noting that legislative action on Obama's proposals is not expected until February.

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