In the face of a Democratic-
controlled Congress and executive branch, the National Rifle Association is moving aggressively to push pro-gun legislation to the top of the Congressional agenda.
Working to maintain its pro-gun Democratic supporters, the NRA has been strategically pushing for Senators to add pro-gun amendments to high-profile legislation, including a provision that would have loosened D.C.s gun control laws on a voting rights bill and adding conceal-and-carry language to the Defense authorization bill.
NRA Executive Director Chris Cox says gun owners were blamed for everything from infectious disease to economic downturns in the 1990s.
What you have seen is when under attack, NRA members and American gun owners respond, Cox said of the 30 percent growth in NRA membership since the November elections.
That response has been borne out on Capitol Hill with Republicans taking up the mantle for the gun lobby.
People sense that a change has definitely happened in Washington as far as the Second Amendment, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) said.
Ensign thwarted legislation in March that would grant Washington, D.C., a voting Member in the House by successfully adding an amendment that would undo the Districts strict gun-control laws.
People think it really makes a difference in elections, and when thats the perception, it tends to affect what happens on the floor, the former National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman said.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who is up for re-election next year and replaced Ensign as Republican Policy Committee chairman in June, upset the Democratic majority last month when he offered an amendment that would have allowed gun owners with concealed-carry permits to bring firearms into other states with similar regulations.
The measure fell short of the 60 needed for passage on a 58-39 vote, which showcased the Democratic caucuss differing views on gun legislation.
While the partys more liberal Members hustled to defeat an amendment, Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and 19 of the Democrats more moderate Members half of whom were elected in 2006 or 2008 voted in favor.
The difficulty Congressional Democrats face on gun votes was on full display during the vote on the Thune amendment when Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) switched his vote to support the measure once it was clear it was going to fail.
You can see theres a lot of support, just not enough support yet, Ensign said of the measure, predicting it will be reintroduced again this year. We want to get it in. We just dont know where yet.
The NRAs Cox agrees.
While its disappointing that it fell two short of a procedural hurdle, it is a huge step forward, Cox said.
Democrats supportive of enhanced gun control acknowledge that even members of their own caucus will make beating back GOP measures difficult.
I think were coming to a point in time where theres got to be a showdown on the control the NRA has on policy, said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), a staunch gun control advocate.
Indeed, Democrats have been prolific on the issue.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced a bill last week banning people convicted of felonies and domestic violence in foreign countries from possessing firearms in the United States. Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) and Feinstein offered a separate measure that would close a loophole that currently allows some private citizens to hunt wildlife from aircraft.
But Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said he isnt worried about the recent uptick in gun-related legislation creating a monsoon of pro-gun victories.
I think they are overreaching, Helmke said, noting the unsuccessful vote on the Thune amendment and the decision to score the Senate vote on Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor next week, even though Sotomayor is expected to be confirmed.
I think its pretty significant when you look on the Hill at the fact that they are coming up short, he added.
Helmke said the recent votes show that if you vote against the NRA, the sky isnt going to fall around Members, so he believes there is a chance to move proactive legislation, something gun control advocates havent been able to do for years.
They are always trying to insert themselves in something. Thats what keeps the money coming in as long as they are scaring their members, Helmke said.
The NRA raised more than $5 million during the first half of 2009, bringing its political action committee total up to $6.1 million.
So far this year, the NRA has donated 77 percent of its contributions to Republicans, giving them $44,150. The group contributed $13,150 to Democrats.
Despite Helmkes prediction, the NRA has already had success this Congress.
In May, the Senate passed a bill that would rein in credit card interest fees along with a Republican-sponsored amendment permitting concealed weapons in national parks.
Dont expect the NRA to slow down anytime soon.
The NRA has also filed several lawsuits this year after the Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller that individuals have the right to privately bear arms. The NRA filed suit against the city of Chicago and several suburban communities around Chicago aimed at striking down their handgun bans.
The cases are expected to make their way up to the Supreme Court.
In addition to continuing to push for national reciprocity, the gun lobby also expects a ban on semiautomatic weapons to resurface.
There are also several bills moving that would limit firearms, including a bill introduced by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) that would prohibit anyone on the no-fly list from purchasing guns.
We never take our eye off the ball from a defensive standpoint, Cox said.