Republicans were still on their winter vacation when President Obama announced he was unilaterally tightening the nation’s background check system. GOP members say that was a bad political maneuver.
“It would have been nice if the president did reach out,” said U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Delaware County). “There are a number of people who, in Pennsylvania, may have been helpful because in fact what he is pushing is consistent with existing Pennsylvania law is. So starting there, there could have been an ability to work a little bit more.”
But the president’s aides accuse moderate Republicans in the Northeast and elsewhere of not being vocal enough on gun control; leaving the president no choice but to act alone. Meehan rejects the charge.
“I don’t think that’s accurate. You still have to be able to get a sufficient number of votes to carry a bill regardless and this is not something that has those votes right now,” Meehan said.
Analysts predict this year’s election will be a game changer for the gun debate. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is promising to spend $50 million to help elect pro-gun-control politicians. Advocates are predicting with more and more high-profile mass shootings, it’s a new day for the gun debate at the national level, which will trickle down to Congress.
“This is changing within the Democratic Party too, pretty quickly. And I think you’re seeing it play out at the presidential level — it’s a seismic shift,” said Mark Prentice, the spokesman for Americans for Responsible Solutions. That’s the group run by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords who was shot at a meet-and-greet with voters in Arizona.
Still, there’s a long way to go to change the debate. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) teamed up with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) in 2013 in an attempt to tighten background checks, but the bill failed by six votes.
“This only works if you have bipartisan buy in,” said Toomey who fears the president set the cause back in Congress by acting alone. But Toomey is being hailed for helping change the debate.
“Not only is Senator Toomey a Republican, but he has an A rating form the NRA,” said Dan Gross, the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. He says the key is getting more people like Toomey to stand up in Congress. “It’s very important that we demonstrate that this is something that the overwhelming majority of Americans agree on.”
Gross says gun-control advocates can’t expect moderate Republican in places like the Northeast to carry the water on the issue until safe space is created to challenge Washington’s conventional wisdom.
“We can’t expect them to do that until we put the appropriate pressure and demonstrate that it’s a safe place to and that’s what’s currently happening,” said Gross.
Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Philadelphia) says that’s more challenging since he believes the entire gun debate has shifted to the right in recent years.
“The NRA now is considered to be the moderate force on guns in the country,” Fattah said. “There are groups to the right of the NRA. The NRA used to be for background checks, but in order to keep their membership they’ve had to move to the right.”
This year’s presidential and congressional elections, including Sen. Toomey’s bid for re-election, are expected to focus more attention on gun violence than in recent elections. But whether soaring rhetoric on the campaign trail can materialize into significant legislation getting to the president’s desk, is yet to be seen.