The National Rifle Association's annual meeting kicks off in Phoenix on Thursday — and its members may have good reason to party.
The NRA has been scoring early and often on Capitol Hill despite a new president who has long supported tighter gun laws and in the face of bigger Democratic majorities in Congress.
Democrats may enjoy a near filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, but when it comes to voting on guns, it's a party divided. In February, 22 Senate Democrats joined most Republicans to amend a District of Columbia voting rights bill so that it essentially forbids the city from restricting gun ownership. And when a GOP-backed amendment came up this week on credit card legislation that would allow carrying concealed loaded weapons in national parks, 27 Democrats voted for it.
"Initially, it looked like we might stop that amendment," says Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the party's chief vote counter. "There were some encouraging votes early on, but then the momentum started moving in the other direction and became a landslide. Half of our caucus voted for it."
Big Gun Lobby 'A Fact Of Life Here'
Durbin says some fellow Democrats who did vote for loaded guns in national parks asked him later how many more times they'd have to face such votes. His answer: I don't know. Tellingly, all but one of the seven Democrats elected in November to seats previously held by Republicans voted for the gun measure.
South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune says it may well have been a tough vote. "But I think there are a lot of people here who are afraid to vote against the Second Amendment," he says. "There are a lot of red-state Democrats, in the Senate at least, who view these issues a little bit differently than some of their other members of their caucus."
Indeed, several House Democrats had a news conference Wednesday to announce that they will try to reinstate a ban on assault weapons that expired five years ago.
"Our gangs are getting assault weapons, our police officers are being killed, and my voice will not be shut until we have a law here that will protect the average citizen," says Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), a lead sponsor of the assault weapons measure.
California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein says she'd also like to see the assault weapons ban restored but that the votes simply aren't there in the Senate — and she blames the NRA.
"The NRA is a very powerful lobby," Feinstein says. "You know, when I came here, people said, 'Oh, you gotta watch out for big oil, big labor.' I found it was big guns, and that's just a fact of life here."
Fear Or A Shift In Public Sentiment?
But others espousing tighter gun laws say lawmakers are overly fearful of the NRA.
Paul Helmke of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence says, "A lot of politicians do fear the NRA. The NRA, I think though, has become more of a paper tiger. I think they really have less clout today than they used to, and I think a lot of what they're trying to do is to get as much as they can before they fully lose that clout."
NRA spokesperson Rachel Parsons counters that it's simply untrue that the group has lost any standing. She says there may be less clamor for new gun laws now, but gun owners are not about to let down their guard.
"While President Obama said that he just doesn't have the support for gun bans in Congress right now, he still says that that's one of his top priorities," Parsons says. "Gun owners know that. That's why they're going out in droves, purchasing firearms and ammunition across the country."
And although police officers in Oakland and Pittsburgh have been killed in recent weeks by gunmen armed with assault weapons, Senator Durbin says lawmakers appear unmoved.
"The climate when it comes to debating guns in Congress is very negative. People don't want to talk about it," he says.
Durbin calls it fear. But Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, says it has more to do with a shift in public sentiment against tougher gun laws. "Democrats seem like they've moved toward Republicans on these issues because they know where the country is," Cornyn says.
Judging by the votes taken so far, easing restrictions on guns may be one of the few issues in Congress this year with truly bipartisan backing.