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Pro-gun Democrats signal openness to new restrictions

JENNIFER STEINHAUER and CHARLIE SAVAGE
New York Times News Service

Publication: theday.com

Published December 18. 2012 10:00AM   Updated December 18. 2012 10:52AM

WASHINGTON — Demonstrating rapidly shifting attitudes toward gun control in the aftermath of a massacre in a Connecticut school, many pro-gun congressional Democrats — including Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader and a long-standing gun rights supporter — signaled an openness on Monday to new restrictions on guns.

White House officials remained vague and noncommittal about how President Barack Obama would translate into action his soaring rhetoric Sunday night in Newtown, when he appeared to presage an effort to curb access to guns. But many Democrats, including several from conservative states, said Congress should take up the issue next year, and one Senate chairman promised hearings.

Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, an advocate of gun rights who drew attention in 2010 by running a commercial that showed him firing a rifle into a piece of legislation serving as a target, said “everything should be on the table” as gun control is debated in the coming weeks and months.

The receptiveness to new gun laws from figures like Manchin suggested the National Rifle Association, long one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, would face a strong test of its influence in the coming months if it sought to fend off tougher restrictions. Leaders of the organization have declined interview requests since the shootings, the group’s Twitter account has gone silent, and it has deactivated its Facebook page.

As the criminal inquiry proceeded, investigators studying a computer taken from the house of the Connecticut gunman, Adam Lanza, said it was so badly damaged that they were not optimistic that they would be able to get any information from it, a law enforcement official said Monday. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has more expertise in computer forensics than Connecticut’s state forensic laboratory, has been part of the effort to recover data from the computer, the official said.

A federal law enforcement official said the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had determined that Lanza and his mother, Nancy, visited firing ranges together and separately in recent years, with one known occasion of their going together. It was not clear whether they had both fired weapons on that visit.

The White House offered no elaboration on Monday of the president’s thinking or the options he would consider; it tried to tamp down expectations of quick action.

In part, that reflected the complicated politics of gun control, as the president’s advisers weighed whether the horror of Newtown had changed the dynamics in Washington enough to make possible measures that were earlier deemed very unlikely to pass.

And in part, that reflected the reality that the president and his top aides are consumed with negotiating a potentially landmark budget bargain with congressional Republicans to head off a fiscal crisis at the end of the year.

On Monday afternoon, Obama met with Vice President Joe Biden and three Cabinet officials — Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., Secretary Kathleen Sebelius of the Department of Health and Human Services, and Arne Duncan, the education secretary — to “begin looking at ways the country can respond to the tragedy in Newtown,” an administration official said.

The official declined to give specifics on the state of the discussions other than to say “the work will continue.”

Several people familiar with the deliberations at the White House in recent days said the administration, for now, was pursuing a strategy of taking time to develop a holistic response that could potentially be announced all at once, an executive order and a legislative proposal, rather than rushing to put out an executive order alone.

The thinking behind that approach, they said, was that the actions the president could take by himself — ordering federal agencies like the Social Security Administration to provide information to the background check system when benefits recipients have been deemed mentally ill or when employees and job applicants fail drug tests — would have only a minor impact relative to things that Congress could do, and that issuing such an order by itself could reduce momentum for greater action.

“It’s a complex problem that will require a complex solution,” Jay Carney, a spokesman for Obama, said in a news conference on Monday. “I don’t have a specific agenda to point you to today.”

On Capitol Hill, Democrats made it clear that they were ready to consider changes after years of pointedly avoiding fights over gun laws lest they face adverse political consequences in swing states and districts.

Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, who has the strong backing of the NRA, said Monday that there should be “stricter rules on the books” regarding guns, and he called the school shootings “a game changer.”

Rep. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who will join the Senate in January and has long advocated a strong pro-gun agenda, said in an email on Monday that “all parties must come to the table” to ponder legislation.

Rep. John A. Yarmuth, a moderate Democrat from Kentucky, said he had been “largely silent on the issue of gun violence over the past six years,” adding, “I am now as sorry for that as I am for what happened to the families who lost so much in this most recent, but sadly not isolated, tragedy.”

Reid, who has long viewed control efforts as a political liability for his party, said, “In the coming days and weeks, we will engage in a meaningful conversation and thoughtful debate about how to change laws and culture that allow violence to grow.”

Democrats seemed to be hoping to seize on the momentum from the shooting, in which 20 first-graders were killed, and the resulting outrage and despondency of millions of Americans, to gingerly build a coalition of lawmakers who might be able to create some form of compromise limits on gun sales or types.

The swift and decisive tone of lawmakers like Manchin, Reid and other gun rights supporters in Congress differed notably from reactions after other recent shootings.

Some lawmakers will introduce bills to reinstate a ban on assault weapons, and high-capacity ammunition clips are expected to surface during the continuing lame duck session or, more likely, in the 113th Congress, which begins in January.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who has resisted some tighter gun laws, said on the Senate floor Monday that his committee would hold hearings next year “to help in the search for understanding and answers.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has said she will introduce legislation that would reinstate a ban on the sale and possession of large clips of ammunition. Reid supports the efforts and has indicated to some Democrats he would seek floor time for her measure. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., said he would reintroduce his high-capacity magazine ban legislation in January.

Many congressional Republicans would almost certainly balk at any effort to impose major new restrictions on gun sales and ownership. A spokesman for Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said Rubio “remains a strong supporter of the Second Amendment right to safely and responsibly bear arms, but he has also always been open to measures that would keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.”

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, on Monday echoed Obama in praising the “self-sacrificing love” of those school staff members who tried to protect the attacked children. McConnell made no mention of the role of Congress.

Despite pressure to move quickly, the White House is gambling that it can wait awhile, possibly until the new year, and still have enough political momentum from the outrage and grief over the shootings to overcome deep opposition to gun control.

“It’s hard to imagine people in any near term somehow forgetting the rawness of what happened on Friday,” Carney said.

But others were not so sure. Other mass shootings have prompted waves of grief and resolve to take action, only to fade in relatively short order. Some advocates of gun control, like Joseph A. Califano Jr., a former adviser to President Lyndon B. Johnson and Cabinet secretary under President Jimmy Carter, suggested that there was just a brief opportunity to press the case while public attention was focused on television images of children clutching teddy bears.

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