What's Next In The Gun Control Debate?

Gun-control groups are regrouping after a bill to tighten background checks for gun sales failed to overcome a filibuster last week in the Senate. The failure was not only a stinging defeat for President Obama, it was also a setback for the new players in the debate.

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Let's consider now what the last few months have been like for supporters of more gun control. A devastating massacre at a school in Connecticut seemed to mobilize many people in this country. And after a long political battle, new legislation aimed at tightening background checks was on the cusp of being passed in Congress.

INSKEEP: Or so it seemed. But after a stinging defeat in the Senate, gun control advocates are regrouping and searching for a new way to proceed. They say they want to try again to pass a proposal that, according to polls, is backed by a vast majority of Americans.

Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The failure of the background check bill was not only a stinging defeat for President Obama. It was also a setback for the new players in the gun control debate. Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Michael Bloomberg's new superPAC, spent millions trying to be the counterweight to the NRA, but came up short.

The director of the mayor's group, Mark Glaze, says going forward, his group has to change the way senators do the political calculus on gun votes.

MARK GLAZE: Members of Congress don't think that we're going to be there for them two years down the road, but they know that the NRA will be there. So we got to prove them wrong. We have to do that with political support for our friends. We need to be there with political support for challengers who run against people who do the wrong thing. And we need to get our voters out to vote. Those are the jobs that we face going forward.

LIASSON: The Bloomberg group will continue to spend millions - advertising for lawmakers who voted yes and against those who voted no.

Last week's gun vote was also an inauspicious debut for another group, Organizing for Action, the reconstituted grassroots arm of the president's re-election campaign. OFA's first effort was the failed attempt to pass background checks. But it says it's not giving up either. This past weekend, OFA organized protests around the country.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Shame on them.

(APPLAUSE)

LIASSON: In Arizona, where former congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot, volunteers held two rallies, one to thank Republican Senator John McCain for voting yes, and another outside the office of Republican Senator Jeff Flake, who voted no.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: He chose to pander for the A-plus rating from the NRA and the gun manufacturers and the gun lobby, when they should be working to earn our A-plus rating, not the NRA's.

(APPLAUSE)

LIASSON: OFA is set up to be a issue advocacy group, not a campaign organization. But OFA strategist Ben Labolt says there are a lot of other ways to hold lawmakers accountable.

BEN LABOLT: You hear members of Congress talk about the strength of the NRA and the fear that the NRA is going to organize in their districts, and in their states, and speak with a louder microphone. Well, we're organizing to ensure that the voices of the 90 percent of American people who support universal background checks are much louder than those of the NRA.

LIASSON: OFA is confident that over time its deep grass roots in key states will help it hold lawmakers accountable. But right now it's hard to find any Republicans who feel their vote against background checks puts them in any political jeopardy.

Here's Republican strategist Whit Ayres.

WHIT AYRES: Major overhaul of our gun laws is going nowhere. Not because of opposition among Republicans but because Democrats are opposed.

LIASSON: It's true that President Obama, Michael Bloomberg and OFA were not able to get the votes of four red-state Democrats. But Jim Kessler, of the centrist Democratic group Third Way, points out that 90 percent of the Democrats did vote yes, and 90 percent of Republicans voted no.

JIM KESSLER: I've worked on this issue for 25 years. Gun bills are notoriously hard to pass, they take a while. Brady took six years from its introduction in 1987 to its passage in 1993. Background checks for gun shows and on the Internet will probably pass more quickly than six years, but it is always a dogfight.

LIASSON: The president has called this round one of the post-Newtown gun debate. And round one went to the NRA, which has won every other gun control fight since 1996.

Still, Jim Kessler is convinced the politics of guns are changing.

KESSLER: Senators, they remember the old organizations that are out there - the NRA, with their intense lobbying. So in a way, senators have not caught up with the reality of the new organizations on the gun safety side and how powerful they are becoming, and on the new politics on guns. So look, senators aren't usually the leading indicators of public opinion - they're a lagging indicator.

LIASSON: Supporters vow to bring the background check bill back to the floor in the next several months. But it just might take another election or two to find out whether there really has been a sea change on this issue.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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