The legislative debate over gun control represents more of a minefield than a firing range for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
As a Democrat from Nevada, Reid has had to tread carefully on the subject as he tries to serve several masters: the gun-loving people of his state, a liberal-leaning Democratic caucus and a White House determined to see action on gun control this year.
In an attempt to strike the right balance, Reid has not promised to deliver on any specific policy position. Instead he has merely pledged to hold votes on all subjects related to gun violence and to allow the Senate to work its will. That likely means some of the more controversial proposals — such as a renewal of the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 — will be defeated, and the chamber will then move on legislation that is weaker but has a broader consensus behind it. That could be exactly where Reid wants it to end up.
In the past, Reid has personally opposed some restrictions on firearms ownership — including the 1994 assault weapons ban — but December’s mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., and other instances of gun violence prompted him to acknowledge the need to address the larger issues.
Nevada GOP Sen. Dean Heller said Monday that Reid has taken a good approach so far and that Nevadans are concerned about the federal government seizing firearms, unrealistic as that might be.
“So Sen. Reid’s going to have to make a decision on this case, and I think he’s open to ideas,” Heller said. “I don’t think he’s made any mistakes at this point. You know, he’s been vague enough not to make any mistakes at this point, but I think that’s critical when you’ve got a discussion like this that’s as emotional as it is. I mean, it is a really emotional issue.
“Being vague at this point probably makes sense, just to get through the hearings,” Heller added, noting that Reid has generally had a good track record on Second Amendment issues from the perspective of gun owners. Of course, Heller and Reid have a political nonaggression pact, despite being from different parties. That relationship, which Reid has had with Nevada Republicans, means they rarely, if ever, badmouth each other.
A state poll conducted last week for the Las Vegas CBS affiliate found that a majority of respondents favor a prohibition on assault weapons but also that Americans should be allowed to own the firearms of their choosing — a contradictory result that underscores the trouble with the issue. However, large majorities of respondents favor registration and background check requirements.
Reid’s cautious approach to gun control has nonetheless raised the ire of liberal commentators, even if he is acting in a way that reflects the reality back home in Nevada. In an interview that aired Sunday on ABC, Reid noted his past both as a Capitol Police officer and as a gun owner.
“I don’t hunt anymore, but I did. I’ve got lots of guns,” Reid said. “I keep ’em for sentimental reasons.”
After an interview last month at his home in tiny Searchlight, Nev., Reid was photographed by the Las Vegas Sun holding an old pistol.
“For Reid, this is a combination of the political and the personal. He is a guy who grew up and owns guns and is from a pretty gun-happy state,” said Jon Ralston, an expert on Nevada politics who publishes his own newsletter. “But he also understands the political climate both ways — the impetus for action in the wake of Newtown and the 2014 [election] matrix that could jeopardize his title.”
Ralston said that many outside Nevada do not understand Reid’s relationship with the National Rifle Association, and the commentator suggested Reid may be more willing to break with the gun lobby’s top lobbyist, Wayne LaPierre, than some realize. The gun rights group declined to endorse Reid in 2010, even though LaPierre attended the opening of the Clark County gun range in 2010 and praised Reid for finding $61 million to fund it.
Reid “was quite upset, I understand, when the NRA backed off and went with a no endorsement,” Ralston said. “He doesn’t feel he owes the NRA a thing.”
Speaking to reporters last week, NRA President David Keene discussed Reid’s role directly, calling him “relatively friendly” to the group’s agenda in the past.
“He’s under incredible pressure right now because ... he’s got his own beliefs, he’s got the views and the demands of his constituents on the one hand, and the pressure he faces as a party leader and from his president on the other,” Keene said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast. “Where Harry Reid ends up in this debate is anybody’s guess, and I think that’s one of the guessing games that’s going on around Washington now.”
Reid has said he supports universal background checks for firearm purchases, a point on which he agrees with his deputies from Illinois and New York, who both personally support further gun control efforts.
Both Sens. Richard J. Durbin and Charles E. Schumer have signaled that a background check measure is the most plausible vehicle for Senate action.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has begun a series of hearings on issues related to gun violence that look likely to run at least through the end of the month. Durbin plans a Feb. 12 hearing of his Judiciary subcommittee to consider the constitutional questions around the Second Amendment. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who is leading the push to revive the expired ban on assault weapons, despite the long odds, has been granted the opportunity to preside over a full committee hearing on her bill (S 150) later this month.