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October 25, 2014

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Politics:

Despite Harry Reid’s growing support, gun control legislation probably isn’t going anywhere in Congress

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Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada testifies on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, June 3, 2014.

In the wake of the Las Vegas police shooting, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid has thrown his full and considerable political weight into more strict gun laws.

“We here in Congress have a duty to put into place legislation that helps prevent deranged individuals from carrying out such savage acts of violence,” the majority leader said Monday on the Senate floor. “Universal backgrounds checks would be a good start.”

The Nevada Democrat has shifted his views from pro-gun rights to pro-gun control. He campaigned in 2010 as a “true champion” of gun rights and until last year resisted his colleagues’ calls for stricter federal gun laws.

But the rest of America may not be following Reid’s shifting position.

Almost two years after 20 children died in a mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., the pro-gun lobby led by the National Rifle Association is as strong as ever. Gun control legislation has already failed in the Senate. Polls in support of gun control have leveled out, and many states, including Nevada, have gone the opposite direction and passed laws expanding gun owners’ freedoms.

After the Newtown shootings, Reid’s comments indicated he thought the bloodshed marked a turning point in the nation’s gun control debate.

“(W)e need to accept the reality that we are not doing enough to protect our citizens,” he said in December 2012 on the Senate floor while promising to allow a debate to “change laws.”

In April 2013, Reid did just that. He brought legislation for background checks on all commercial gun sales to the Senate floor.

But that legislation failed 54-46.

Since then, there have been 28 mass shootings and only one other vote in Congress on gun legislation. (The House of Representatives voted in May to give the agency that conducts background checks an extra $19.5 million.)

Americans seem to be just fine with Congress’ inaction on gun laws. A January Gallup poll found Americans’ support for stricter gun laws fell from 38 percent shortly after Newtown to 31 percent this January. That same poll found a sharp increase in Americans dissatisfied with current gun laws because they’re too strict.

Then on Sunday, gun violence hit in Reid’s adopted hometown. Police say convicted felon Jerad Miller and his wife, Amanda Miller, murdered two Las Vegas police officers in a pizza restaurant and a man at a Wal-Mart nearby.

The incident appears to have shaken Reid, who pushed aside a busy Senate agenda on student loan refinancing and immigration reform Monday to call for universal background checks.

“He was a felon,” Reid said Tuesday. “… He couldn’t have bought a gun if we had background checks.”

Reid’s support shows how far the gun control side has come, said Ladd Everitt, the director of communications for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

“He’s had a change of heart,” Everitt said. “... It’s clear that he’s committed to this.”

But questions remain about whether gun control advocates are a match for the powerful pro-gun lobby that has advocated for decades against new restrictions at all levels of government. They’re well organized and armed with loads of cash.

Reid and gun control advocates are up against people like Paul Valone, the founder and president of the powerful gun rights group Grass Roots North Carolina. Valone helped North Carolina pass laws allowing gun owners to carry concealed weapons in local parks, playgrounds, bars and restaurants.

“We will not compromise on gun control,” he said on the one-year anniversary of Newtown. “I’ll hold any legislator’s feet to the fire.”

Nevada ranked in the nation's top 10 states for gun deaths per capita in 2010, according to the Law Center for Gun Violence.

Pro-gun supporters have been active in Nevada, too. The state Legislature expanded its concealed carry law in 2013 to allow gun owners to carry all types of handguns. That same year, Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed a bill that would have expanded background checks to private gun sales.

By comparison, the gun control movement is relatively nascent and not nearly as fervent.

Gun control advocates point out that it’s historically taken several years and six or seven votes in Congress to pass meaningful gun control legislation.

And advocates say they’ve made great strides just in the past two years.

Since Newtown, two political action committees have formed and are raising money to support gun control candidates. Before Newtown, not a single PAC existed on the gun control side.

“You can’t really overstate how much our movement has changed in the last few years,” Everitt said. Thanks in part to mega donors like former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, “we can play ball with (the NRA) now,” Everitt said.

And the American public may soon catch up to Reid’s shifting positions, especially with the amount of public shootings in recent weeks, said Pia Carusone, a senior adviser for Americans for Responsible Solutions, a super PAC started by former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly.

“I think people are just sick of being told that is is an intractable issue because the corporate gun lobby has so much money,” she said.

But even with Reid’s support, they still have a long way to go. Gun control advocates just hope Reid and other national leaders keep pressing the issue.

“This has entered people’s consciousness,” Carusone said. “And I don’t think it’s going away.”

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