STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
This morning marks the start of the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association. The gun rights group is meeting in Phoenix. And you might be surprised to learn that the NRA is on a roll.
INSKEEP: The gun lobby faces bigger Democratic majorities in Congress, and the new president has supported tighter gun laws. And yet the opponents of gun control have been winning repeatedly in Washington this year. Supporters of gun control are losing.
NPR's David Welna explains how that's happened.
DAVID WELNA: 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. One who opposed the measure was the party's chief vote counter, Dick Durbin.
Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): Initially, it looked like we might stop that amendment. There was encouraging votes early on. But then the momentum started moving in the other direction, and it became a landslide. Half of our caucus voted for it.
WELNA: Durbin says some fellow Democrats who did vote for loaded guns in national parks came up to him later and asked him how many more times they'd have to face such votes. His answer, he said, was: I don't know. Tellingly, all but one of seven Democrats elected in November to seats previously held by Republicans voted for the gun measure. South Dakota Republican John Thune says it may well have been a tough vote.
Senator JOHN THUNE (Republican, South Dakota): But I think there are lot of people here who are afraid to vote against the Second Amendment. And so for that reason, I think the climate may be - and there 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.
WELNA: Indeed, several House Democrats held a news conference yesterday to announce they will try to reinstate a ban on assault weapons that expired five years ago. New York Democrat Carolyn McCarthy is a lead sponsor of that measure.
Representative CAROLYN MCCARTHY (Democrat, New York): 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.
WELNA: California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein says she, too, wants the assault weapons ban restored. But she says the votes simply are not there in the Senate. And she blames the NRA.
Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): The NRA is a very powerful lobby. You know, when I came here people said, oh, you got to watch out for big oil, big labor. I found it was big guns. And that's just a fact of life here.
WELNA: But others espousing tighter gun laws say lawmakers are overly fearful of the NRA. Paul Helmke heads the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Mr. PAUL HELMKE (Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence): A lot of politicians do fear the NRA. The NRA, I think, though, has become more 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.
MS. RACHEL PARSONS (NRA): To suggest that we've lost clout is simply untrue.
WELNA: That's NRA spokesperson Rachel Parsons. She says there may be less clamor now for new gun laws, but gun owners are not about to let down their guard.
Ms. PARSONS: And 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. Gun owners know that. That's why they're going out in droves, purchasing firearms and ammunition across the country.
WELNA: And while police officers in Oakland and Pittsburgh have been killed in recent weeks by assault weapons, Senate Democrat Durbin says lawmakers appear unmoved.
Sen. DURBIN: The climate, when it comes to debating guns in Congress, is very negative. People don't want to talk about it.
WELNA: Durbin calls it fear. But Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, calls it a shift in public sentiment against tougher gun laws.
Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): Democrats seem like they've moved toward Republicans on these issues, because they know where the country is.
WELNA: And judging by the votes taken so far, easing restrictions on guns may be one of the few issues in Congress with truly bipartisan backing this year.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.