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Back From Recess, Congress Preps For Gun Legislation Fight

Congress comes back from a two-week spring break on Monday.
Charles Dharapak
Congress comes back from a two-week spring break on Monday.

The U.S. Senate was scheduled to begin voting on gun control measures this week when Congress returns from recess, but Senate staffers say a bipartisan agreement has yet to be reached on universal background checks. That snarl may end up delaying a vote on gun legislation for another week, as lobbyists on both sides of the debate use the extra time to keep the pressure on.

Gun control advocacy groups — such as Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America — have been popping into Senate offices all recess, just talking to staffers, but hoping their words might trickle up to the ears of lawmakers.

The group formed within days of the Newtown, Conn., shootings, and most of the 80,000 members have never lobbied before in their lives.

"I certainly think that walking through the halls of Congress is a little intimidating," member Cathi Geeslin says. "But once you realize that they actually work for you, then it's not so scary."

Their recent target was Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., a lawmaker of interest to both sides of the gun fight because he's a Democrat in a conservative state with a strong tradition of gun ownership.

The National Rifle Association had told its members to barrage Warner's office with calls that morning. When Moms Demand Action heard that, they launched a counteroffensive, clogging up Warner's phone lines so badly that calls were going straight to voicemail.

Later, several members of the group visited Warner to talk about universal background checks. It's the central issue bedeviling Democratic senators who are trying to get a bipartisan agreement before any gun bill hits the Senate floor.

Checks And Balances

The key Republican player is Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who has an "A" rating from the NRA. The common view is if he doesn't get on board, the background checks bill will fail. Coburn has said he's willing to expand background checks to private gun sales, but he doesn't want any records kept that would allow the government to keep track of who owns guns.

Gun control advocates call that a foolish position.

"To not have records really only shields the identity of criminals," says David Chipman, a former agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He said you need records of sales to trace guns used in crimes back to their owners.

"It was the primary thing that I used to break gun trafficking rings from Virginia to New York for the first five years of my career," he said. "I can't imagine making any of those cases without records."

The NRA expressed support for expanding background checks in 1999, but since the Newtown shootings, the organization has been staunchly opposed to the idea.

Other gun rights advocates say they might be open to expanding background checks to private sellers and sales at gun shows, but like Coburn, they're against keeping records of those sales because the data could create a national gun registry, and there's no telling what the government would do with that information.

That might sound paranoid, but many gun owners ask: How can you blame us?

"So much of what the anti-gun movement has been pushing is just whatever leads to less guns is better," says David Kopel of the Independence Institute, "based more on this, just sort of visceral feeling that, 'We hate everything about guns and what they stand for and the kind of people who have them.'"

As long as that resentment exists, Republican lawmakers and Democrats vying for re-election in conservative states have been playing their cards close to their vests.

An Unclear Line

When Linda Falkerson of Moms Demand Action emerged from the meeting with Warner's staff, she said she had no clue which way he was actually leaning.

"I got the impression that they haven't decided yet," Falkerson said. "This really is tough for him."

The group didn't want to elaborate on any more detail about the meeting.

Last December, Warner called the Newtown shootings a "game-changer" on guns, and said that the status quo wasn't acceptable. But that sense of outrage has cooled.

Now, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has already said he won't include an assault weapons ban in his gun legislation package, and a handful of Republicans are threatening to filibuster whatever bill does hit the floor.

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Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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