The 6 most important people in the looming gun control debate

December 17, 2012

The nation is tentatively moving toward a new debate over increased restrictions on guns in the aftermath of the second-deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history on Friday.

And while legislating guns has gotten less and less popular in recent years, some are suggesting that the killings of 20 young children in Newtown, Conn., have so shifted the gun control paradigm that Congress can and should act now.

Below, we look at six people who would play a major role in that action, if it happens:

* President Obama: The president has so far approached the gun control issue with some caution, saying Friday that such discussions could wait and speaking only in broad terms about potential legislation during his public appearances since the tragedy. But the president has some political capital to burn right now, and his tone suggests somebody who thinks it's time for action. The question is how much of that political capital he is willing to spend it on such a difficult issue. Polls have consistently shown the American people moving against increased gun restrictions in recent years. Obama hasn't tipped his hand, but any effort to create new restrictions would almost surely need his full-throated support.


New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) is perhaps the most powerful gun control advocate in the country. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

* Michael Bloomberg: The independent New York mayor was among the first to push for a debate about revamping the nation's gun control laws on Friday, and he has the added power of putting his (considerable sum of) money where his mouth is. Bloomberg spent millions of dollars through his super PAC in the 2010 election to support pro-gun control candidates of both parties, even defeating a pro-gun incumbent Democrat in Rep. Joe Baca (Calif.). A big reason both Republicans and Democrats balk at new gun control measures is because the National Rifle Association is hugely powerful and can play in a big role in a House race -- particularly in the primary -- and there's little in the way of a counterbalance. If gun control supporters believe Bloomberg and his allies might counter-act the NRA's influence, they might be more willing to stick their neck out.

* Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.): The California senator said Sunday that she will introduce a bill that would reinstate the assault weapons ban, a law that lapsed in 2004 and hasn't even made it to the floor of the Senate for renewal. She also led the effort to pass the original bill in 1994. She said in 2004 that the votes weren't there for a renewal, but she expressed optimism on Sunday that the bill could pass in the aftermath of the tragedy in Newtown.

* Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.): No member of Congress has a closer personal connection to this issue, with the possible exception of Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.), who was wounded in the shooting in Tucson in 2011. McCarthy's husband was killed and her son was badly injured when a man opened fire on a Long Island commuter train in 1993. The tragedy led McCarthy to become a gun control activist and eventually propelled her to Congress. If there's anyone who can make a personal appeal on this issue and can claim a real connection to the events in Newtown, it's McCarthy. And her testimony -- along with Barber's -- could be a big part of a gun control push.

* Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah): In order for any gun legislation to pass, at least some Republicans need to be on-board -- particularly in the House, but also likely in the Senate. Finding a standard-bearer for gun control in today's GOP, though, is a tough job. The reason we name Hatch is because he has played ball with gun control advocates in the past, including in aftermath of the tragedy at Columbine in 1999, and also because he's got a reputation for bipartisanship. Having survived a primary challenge this year, Hatch has said he won't seek another term in 2018 and thus has considerable political latitude right now.

* Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.): While it will be hard for any gun control bill to get GOP votes, it will also be very difficult to get votes from Senate Democrats who face reelection in red states in 2014. And they are legion. Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) are all up in two years and will be very tough votes to get. And that doesn't include Democratic senators in pro-gun swing states like Mark Udall in Colorado and Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire. In fact, Reid himself comes from a pro-gun state, and his supporters actively sought the NRA's endorsement in his 2010 reelection bid. If those red state Democrats vote for a bill, it will be in large part because of Reid's leadership and because he took the leap with them.

Clinton suffers concussion, won't testify: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sustained a concussion after fainting early last week, and she will therefore not be testifying this week about the attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya.

Clinton has been suffering from a stomach virus that has grounded her travel plans. Her concussion wasn't disclosed for at least a few days, though.

In her stead, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns will testify Thursday to the House foreign affairs committee.

As we wrote before, Clinton has largely escaped any political problems stemming from the situation in Benghazi, even as Susan Rice has seen her potential nomination to replace Clinton scuttled.

The chairwoman of the House foreign affairs committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), said that Clinton will have to testify eventually.

Fixbits:

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has reportedly offered to allow tax cuts for the wealthy to expire if Obama agrees to significant entitlement reform. He has also offered to take the debt limit fight off the table for the next year.

Bloomberg keeps pushing Obama to act on gun control, saying it should be atop his list of priorities.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) wants a national commission on gun violence.

Gun rights advocates didn't have much to say on the Sunday shows yesterday. And one who did, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), clarifies that he wasn't pushing for additional gun restrictions.

new poll in Florida shows former governor Charlie Crist, who just recently became a Democrat, is the clear favorite to become that party's nominee for governor in 2014, topping 2010 nominee Alex Sink by double digits.

The Electoral College votes Monday, making Obama's reelection win official.

Former Massachusetts governor William Weld (R) doesn't sound like he would rule out being the GOP's backup plan if Scott Brown doesn't run in the likely special Senate election.

For what it's worth, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) can't run for both reelection and for president at the same time in 2016. While it would be legal in some states, it is not in Kentucky.

Must-reads:

"As Republicans ponder 2012 defeat, party’s philosophy hangs in the balance" -- Karen Tumulty, Washington Post

"The gun debate: Are the Newtown, Conn., killings a tipping point?" -- Chris Cillizza, Washington Post

"Chuck Hagel, John Kerry share similarities as expected Obama Cabinet nominees" -- Ann Gearan and Karen DeYoung, Washington Post

"Some tax hikes, spending cuts now seen as inevitable in January" -- Paul Kane, Washington Post

"A Political Brawler, Now Battling for Microsoft" -- Nick Wingfield and Claire Cain Miller, New York Times

"Republican Cash Held More Sway in State Contests" -- Nicholas Confessore and Monica Davey, New York Times

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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Chris Cillizza | December 17, 2012