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Mayors, NRA go head-to-head over gun sale background checks

The 800-member group ‘Mayors Against Illegal Guns’ is running new ads pressuring 15 senators to support gun sale background checks. The National Rifle Association is fighting back.

Taking a leaf from the aggressive political playbook of the powerful National Rifle Association, the pro-gun control group “Mayors Against Illegal Guns” is targeting 15 potentially persuadable senators in 13 states with $12 million in new advertising pressure.

Announced over the weekend by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the effort aims to pressure lawmakers to approve expanded background checks for those purchasing guns.

Today, according to the group of more than 800 mayors around the country, some 40 percent of gun sales – typically at gun shows or between private individuals – do not include background checks intended to weed out convicted felons, the mentally ill, and other questionable purchasers. (That 40 percent figure is disputed by gun advocates and some researchers.)

The two ads, scheduled to run during the Easter/Passover break in which lawmakers are back in their home states, feature hunters and other gun owners in rural setting.

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In one ad, a man says he’ll defend the Second Amendment but adds “with rights come responsibilities.” In the other, a hunter says “background checks have nothing to do with taking guns away from anyone.”

“These ads bring the voices of Americans – who overwhelmingly support comprehensive and enforceable background checks – into the discussion to move senators to immediately take action to prevent gun violence,” Mayor Bloomberg said in a statement issued by the group he co-founded in 2006. The New York Times reports that Bloomberg paid for the $12 million ad buy himself.

That “overwhelming” public support Bloomberg refers to is based on polls taken earlier this month in 21 states and 41 congressional districts showing support for universal background checks approaching 90 percent.  Another survey, taken last year by Republican pollster Frank Luntz, found that 82 percent of gun owners – including 74 percent of NRA members – support requiring criminal background checks for anyone purchasing a gun.

“If 90 percent of the public want something, and their representatives vote against that, common sense says, they are going to have a price to pay for that,” Bloomberg said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, referring to those recent polls and the mayors group’s high-pressure lobbying effort.

The 15 senators targeted in the new mayors group ads include Republicans Jeff Flake of Arizona, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Dan Coats of Indiana, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Susan Collins of Maine, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Dean Heller of Nevada, Rob Portman of Ohio, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. The Democrats are Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.

In the past, the NRA had supported expanded background checks.

But in a speech at the Western Hunting & Conservation Expo in Salt Lake City last month, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre said, “Don’t you be fooled.”

“This so-called ‘background check’ is aimed at one thing – registering your guns,” he warned. “When another tragic ‘opportunity’ presents itself, that registry will be used to confiscate your guns” – a reference to recent mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn.

Also speaking on “Meet the Press,” Mr. LaPierre said of Bloomberg, “He can’t spend enough of his $27 billion to impose his will on the American people. He can’t buy America.”

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So far in the congressional fight over gun control, a new ban on military-style assault weapons seems unlikely to go anywhere – although President Obama in his weekend radio address said such a measure “shouldn’t be controversial.”

“They’re common sense,” he said. “They’re supported by a majority of the American people.”

That may be, but the NRA is known to fight hard and personally as one of the toughest special-interest groups in Washington, claiming more than 4 million members, backed financially by the gun industry, and (in the last election) helping finance the campaigns of 261 congressional candidates.

And “after a series of missteps” following the Newtown massacre in which 20 first graders and six adult staff were killed by a heavily-armed gunman at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in December, The Hill newspaper reports, “the NRA has regained its footing, rallying gun owners and lawmakers against new gun controls in a fierce lobbying effort that appears to be paying dividends on Capitol Hill.”

“Indeed, over the last 100 days, Democrats have grown more divided over Obama’s proposed reforms,” The Hill reported Sunday. “An assault weapons ban is on life support and Senate Democrats have failed to entice a single Republican to back universal background checks. Congress also this week solidified four gun-friendly laws as part of legislation to fund the government through September.”

Still, there may be room for maneuver and compromise on expanded background checks.

Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a conservative Democrat and gun-rights supporter, is in private talks with the NRA on background checks, Politico reports.

“That the NRA is even talking with Manchin suggests there’s at least some room for negotiation for the group – despite its public posture against tougher gun laws,” according to Politico. “And if successful, a Manchin-NRA deal could draw in enough Republicans and red-state Democrats to defeat an expected GOP filibuster of the overall gun control bill when it hits the floor next month.”