The NRA's Victory Lap Has Gun Control Advocates Looking for a Breakthrough

As Congress returns to a continued hiatus in the Senate's push for a return to expanded gun control legislation, opponents of new measures have hunkered down while advocates of stronger laws desperately look for a way back in.

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As Congress returns to a continued hiatus in the Senate's push for a return to expanded gun control legislation, opponents of new measures have hunkered down while advocates of stronger laws desperately look for a way back in.

A renewal of the Senate's efforts to expand measures on gun ownership appears to be a mere formality at this point. The vice president has repeatedly indicated that he is pushing for another vote on an expansion of background checks in particular. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois appeared to echo that plan on CNN yesterday, though he pointed out that the task wasn't a small one. Noting that the measure needs five more votes, Durbin outlined what was keeping that from happening, "What we need to see is a change in political sentiment within the Senate."

The Senate, it's becoming increasingly clear, is looking for a breakthrough.

Over the weekend, the NRA held its annual convention in Houston, providing a big platform for the organization's public face, Wayne LaPierre, to argue his so-far-successful case against any new laws. One argument he made certainly tiptoes the line of politicization that gun control opponents often accuse their opponents of crossing.

[In Boston,] residents were imprisoned behind the locked doors of their homes — a terrorist with bombs and guns just outside. Frightened citizens, sheltered in place, with no means to defend themselves or their families from whatever may come crashing through the door.

How many Bostonians wished they had a gun two weeks ago?

It's worth noting that Massachusetts law wouldn't have prevented any of those frightened citizens from owning firearms. The city of Watertown, site of the final shootout and search for the Tsarnaevs, outlines the state's laws. Those laws are focused largely on safe storage of weapons in the home: protected containers and trigger locks.

LaPierre followed that argument with this: "I've said it before and I'll say it again: No bill in Congress, no Rose Garden speech will ever change the inescapable fact that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." National Journal's Jill Lawrence presented a series of examples where laws could have prevented firearm deaths, though, as we've noted in the past, an expansion of background checks wouldn't have stopped many mass shootings.

In total, LaPierre's speech wasn't very different from his past arguments on the topic. Which isn't a big surprise — so far, that argument has been successful: Even if public opinion may be shifting, only 27 percent of Americans view the NRA unfavorably, and the gun lobby has not lost a national legislative fight since Newtown.

Vice President Joe Biden, the administration's point person on the issue, decided to engage the NRA directly, writing an opinion piece for the Houston Chronicle that ran on Sunday. His argument was predicated on Sandy Hook, but his focus was on the politics.

For too long, members of Congress have been afraid to vote against the wishes of the NRA, even when the vast majority of their constituents support what the NRA opposes. That fear has become such an article of faith that even in the face of evidence to the contrary, a number of senators voted against basic background checks, against a federal gun trafficking statute and against other common-sense measures because they feared a backlash.

Biden noted recent polls showing declining approval ratings for several senators that voted against the background check compromise. The breakthrough Biden seeks is that "change in political sentiment" from five senators.

The debate — spawned by the murder of what the vice president described as "20 beautiful babies" — is most vividly reflected in the role of children. The NRA has long sponsored gun safety programs for children. At the convention, young people have been encouraged to embrace gun culture. The Daily News describes one family's enthusiasm.

Trent Mattison, 51, of Beaumont, Tex., watched proudly as his 5-year-old son, Cooper, practiced shooting at the air-soft rifle range.

“I like it because I like the smell of gunsmoke,” said Cooper.

In Kentucky, that sentiment was marred by tragedy. A week ago today, five-year-old Kristian Sparks's parents bought him a rifle designed for children. The next day, he shot and killed his two-year-old sister Caroline. The New York Times reported on the response from the community.

The death has convulsed this rural community of 1,800 in south-central Kentucky, where everyone seems to know the extended Sparks family, which is now riven by grief. But as mourners gathered for Caroline’s funeral on Saturday, there were equally strong emotions directed at the outside world, which has been quick to pass judgment on the parents and a way of life in which many see nothing unusual about introducing children to firearms while they are still in kindergarten.

Many in the community weren't interested in talking to the press, with one woman saying, "it's nobody else’s business but our town's." It's hard not to want to extract a lesson from the comparison. But in this case LaPierre would be correct — none of the recent proposals before the Senate would have done anything to save the life of Caroline Sparks.

Photo: A teen in an NRA t-shirt aims a rifle at this weekend's convention. (AP)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.