The gun control debate — two months after the last gun control proposal was killed in the Senate — is alive, well and far from a conclusion.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) has found himself in a screaming match with the National Rifle Association. The NRA recently started an ad campaign that accuses Manchin of working with the White House to draft gun control legislation — outside of his campaign promise to “defend the Second Amendment.”
This new line of attack from the NRA underlies the reality that the gun control debate — two months after the last gun control proposal was killed in the Senate — is alive, well and far from a conclusion.
“That was Joe Manchin then,” the NRA’s ad begins. “But now, Manchin is working with President Obama and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Concerned? You should be. Tell Sen. Manchin to honor his commitment to the Second Amendment and reject the Obama-Bloomberg gun control agenda.”
Manchin — who is up for reelection in 2018 — is not an obvious target. However, the attack on Manchin — it constitutes at least $100,000 in ad spending on a candidate not actively campaigning — represents a new long-term, personal strategy the gun rights group is using to put pressure on perceived enemies. Manchin, along with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), co-authored a proposal that would have expanded background checks for gun purchases. He has also attacked the NRA leadership in recent months for being out of touch with the rank-and-file of NRA membership.
This is despite the fact that Manchin is — in his own opinion — still a loyal NRA member.
“The Washington NRA could spend one hundred million dollars on ads against me; it still won’t make what they say true. If they were honest with their members they would see that my bill not only protects 2nd Amendment rights, it enhances and strengthens them. Unfortunately, the NRA leadership in Washington has lost its way and is more concerned about political power than gun rights and gun safety,” Manchin said to Politico in a statement. “I believe that criminal and mental background checks are a commonsense approach to protect our neighbors and children without infringing on our 2nd Amendment rights. I think most NRA members agree with me.”
In response to this challenge, Manchin has promised to match the NRA’s ad campaign with ads of his own that clarify the senator’s stance. Manchin is also actively seeking additional Senate votes to move his proposal past the filibuster. He expects a revote as early as next month.
The Democrats strike back
Allies of the NRA have found themselves under attack recently. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group Mayors Against Illegal Guns is currently attacking the four Democratic senators that voted against Manchin-Toomey — Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) — with television ads and requests to major donors not to support them.
“Instead of rising above politics to pass a law that would save lives, these four senators sided with a gun lobby increasingly out of touch with Americans’ priorities,” Bloomberg wrote. “The next time these four senators want you to support them with donations to their campaigns, tell them you cannot. Until they show that they will stand up for the American people and not the gun lobby, tell them you cannot support their candidacy.”
This campaign was in part started by New York venture capitalist and Buzzfeed founder Kenneth Lerer. Lerer started the website StopTheNRA.com, which feaures videos, news articles and images of gun violence in the country.
“The point of StopTheNRA is to post and create viral content and put it all in one place to bring ongoing attention to the outrageous positions of the NRA and to continue to bring pressure on the issues,” Lerer told the Washington Post.
The power of executive action
Meanwhile, Democrats appear to be preparing a new offensive in the gun control debate. Vice President Joe Biden hosting a White House event Tuesday with gun control advocates — including Bloomberg. Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ (D-Ariz.) Americans for Responsible Solutions is hitting Rep. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) with radio attack ads. And Mayors Against Illegal Guns is engaging in a 25-state, 100-day bus tour that started last Friday.
In addition, according to a report issued Tuesday, the Obama administration has “completed or made significant progress” on 21 of the 23 executive actions the president outlined January 16 as part of his gun control initiative.
“But Congress must also act,” the report says. “Passing common-sense gun safety legislation, including expanding background checks and making gun trafficking a federal crime, remains the single most important step we could take to reduce gun violence.”
The report calls on Congress to unfreeze federal research on the causes of gun violence, to remove barriers that were installed to prevent states from submitting certain records to the existing background check system, and to make it easier for federal law enforcement to trace recovered guns.
The two remaining executive actions are the appointment of a new director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the finalization of regulations forcing group health plans to offer mental health benefits. The administration feels that these regulations will be in place by the end of the year, while the confirmation of acting ATF Director B. Todd Jones is being blocked by Republicans while they investigate his tenure as U.S. attorney for Minnesota.
“As proud as the president and I am of progress we’ve made, we need Congress to act,” Biden said, speaking Tuesday to an audience that included Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. “We need everyone in the country to know the fight is not over. Far from it . . . I assure you one thing each of us says to our colleagues about the votes: ‘The country has changed. You will pay a political price for not getting engaged and dealing with gun safety.’”
“What can be accomplished through executive action is real and necessary, but not sufficient,” said Mark Glaze, executive director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. “If all that comes out of this once-in-a-generation debate is teaching kids how to duck and cover during a mass shooting, some members of Congress are going to have a lot to explain when it happens. And it will happen.”