Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
October 22, 2014

Is Manchin’s NRA Fight a Proxy for Would-Be Gun Control Supporters?

Monday marked two months since the Senate voted against expanding federal background checks for firearms customers. Friday marked six months since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre pushed armed violence toward the top of this year’s legislative concerns.

Both milestones slipped by without any tangible change in a dynamic that has paralyzed Congress on the issue for more than two decades: More lawmakers fear the consequences of supporting gun control than are scared of doing nothing to control guns.

And at first blush, it seems as if one senator’s decision to spend Monday with his campaign staff and a film production crew validates all of the anxieties of the working congressional majority. Maybe, but maybe not.

Sen. Joe Manchin III, the principal Democratic author of the background check expansion, won his new term by 24 points last fall and doesn’t face voters again until 2018. But instead of spending Monday searching for persuadable colleagues, he was in West Virginia taping a campaign-style TV spot to defend himself against a new wave of criticism from his old friends at the National Rifle Association.

It will go on the air within a few days to rebut the most powerful force in the gun lobby. The NRA had given him “A” ratings and plenty of campaign support over the years, but it is now spending $100,000 to air a 30-second ad across the state this week urging viewers to call Manchin’s office and tell him “to honor his commitment to the Second Amendment” and to stop “working with” President Barack Obama on the issue.

It would be an understatement to say the gun culture and disdain for the president are strong features of the state’s political complexion, so maybe Manchin has decided he can’t act fast enough to shake off the double taint.

But his move could be about more than that. He may have concluded that before he can genuinely hope to win over any of the senators seen as persuadable, he’ll have to offer evidence that they, too, can survive the NRA’s attack ad onslaught.

So fighting his own rhetorical war now, with the argument that no law-abiding gun owner’s right to bear arms would be infringed on by more background checks, is what Manchin may view as the best way to help the larger cause.

The proposal rejected in April — a majority of 55 supported it, but it needed 60 votes to triumph over a threatened filibuster — would have expanded the existing system to cover customers online and at gun shows. Non-commercial transactions, such as those between family members and over the backyard fence, would not be affected.

The language, which Manchin unveiled with Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, specifically bars the government from starting a national firearms registry, although gun groups say all the mandatory record-keeping would amount to as much. They, and a potentially pivotal group of senators, say doing away with the data collection is the only way to win their support. Advocates of gun control say doing so would make the measure toothless.

Four Democrats from red states voted against the original background check proposal, and much of the subsequent lobbying has focused on two of them: Max Baucus of Montana, who has since announced his retirement, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who would have more than five years to explain her change of heart before standing for a second term. But switches by both would still leave the measure, which had four GOP backers in April, three Republicans shy of victory.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has made clear that he won’t call for a do-over vote until he’s certain of winning, a prospect that for now looks essentially impossible before the fall. Under the rules, he has 18 months, until the end of the session, to revive it. The more lugubrious, if practical, approach would be to wait only until right after inevitable occurs: Another sociopath with a shady background unloads his mail-order assault weapon into a crowd of innocents at house of worship, temple of knowledge or palace of entertainment.

Until then, advocates will have to content themselves with the steady progress the Obama administration is making on its gun-control-around-the-edges, by-executive-order agenda. That’s what Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. will be talking about Tuesday, when he gathers a group of gun control advocates for a photo op at the White House

He’ll also reiterate his “this fight is far from over” legislative rallying cry, which he used in an email last week seeking support from Democrats on the Hill. But there’s nothing to suggest he’s found any new congressional soldiers to join his crusade, let alone enough reinforcements to win the battle on the second go-round.

In the back of his mind, the vice president will surely be hoping that some wavering senators view Manchin’s rapid response as putting steel in their spine, not retreat on their minds.

  • Brian

    I’m not sure if Manchin is fighting a proxy war against the NRA, but I suspect you are. You can’t buy a gun through the mail without going through a background check. And if we are concerned about the mentally ill commuting violence shouldn’t we be pushing for action on our country’s failed mental health system, rather than waiting for an event to serve as a pretext for gun control? Where is the outrage that the Senate isn’t moving on mental health?

  • gunnut1970

    And what this article fails to say is that even if it ever passed the Senate, the chance of this bill passing the House in anything like its current form is precisely zero.

  • Mike Bazinet

    Purchasing firearms through the mail has been illegal for 45 years. All firearms ordered on line must be delivered through federally licensed dealers. This may have been a throw-away line, but it is factually incorrect. Instead of focusing on extending background checks, the focus should be on making sure all adjudicated mental health records are in the federal instant background check system known as NICS. About 20 states have failed to do this. The system is only as good as the records in it.

  • Robyn

    I cannot “give” a car to someone else over the backyard fence.
    I must transfer the title. Why are guns to be excepted?
    Why must tools to kill people be given yet another special exemption loophole?

    Just how far must the Republican Congress bend over
    and take it for the NRA to be satisfied?

    • NameNotGiven

      can you sell a knife over the fence without a permit?

  • NameNotGiven

    David, thanks for showing why the once venerable roll call has dropped to a position of no influence and why polico and the hill have killed it.

    Please tell us about gun sales thorough he mail that don’t involve an FFL (full background check).

    It is already a felony and one of the easiest to prosecute.

    And lets stick with the facts and not fear drive hyusteria. About 1,000 Americans who are not criminals are killed by guns each year out of 350 million Americans. Yes. Every police department that has done a study, and scores have. Have found that between 85 to 95% of the murders in their jurisdictions, the victims are criminals. There are 10,000 gun murdes (and falling per capita relentlessly) very year in the US. DO THE MATH.

    Compare that with between 300,000 to 4 million crime prevented by law abiding gun owners.

    Gun control advocate are identical to anti vaccine nuts in their thinking. they will not accept the data on prevention. Legal gun ownership is a massive crime preventative.

    Lastly which of manchins proposals will stop any one of the “massacres” you mentioned.

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