Senate moderates — especially conservative Democrats — have been the arbiters of whether gun legislation passes or fails in the last few incarnations of Congress. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) sponsored the background check amendment debated after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. When it failed, Democratic Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Mark Begich (Alaska), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.) were among those who voted against it.
This week, the Senate is considering amendments to the Bipartisan Sportsmen Act. The amendments will decide whether the bill leans toward being a gun-control bill or a gun-rights bill, and again, moderates are likely the key. The difference now is that many of these moderates are just months away from elections that will make them even more wary of embracing anything controversial.
Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) is co-sponsoring the bill, and without amendments, the bill is little but a petit four to hand out to voters on the campaign trail. The Washington Post's Ed O'Keefe summed up the bill as "a measure that would make it easier to hunt and fish on some federal lands, allow the construction of more public shooting ranges at national parks and wildlife refuges and make it easier to purchase federal permits to hunt ducks, geese and other waterfowl. Those and about a dozen other proposals in the bill are popular in rural states where hunting and fishing are common."
However, more ideologically daring senators are going to propose amendments that would make the bill a more difficult sell for those facing reelection.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) wants to change D.C.'s gun ban and allow people to bring guns into federal buildings, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wants to add more gun-control measures. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) wants to make transporting guns across state lines easier.
Given the history of gun control legislation, the chances that this bill will strengthen gun restrictions is slim. The question then is, how willing moderates in the Senate would be to loosen existing restrictions.
For many of these senators, loosening gun restrictions isn't about to do wonders for their campaign. Most of them already have low grades from many of the pro-gun organizations. Pryor had a C- from the National Rifle Association as of December 2012. Gun Owners of America gave him an F. Hagan has an F grade from both groups.
The NRA gave both Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Sen. Mark Udall (D-Col.) a C. Begich is an outlier. He has an A from the NRA.
However, support for the bill from pro-gun groups isn't universal. The National Association for Gun Rights told the Center for Responsive Politics that it's "a weak bill, doing little but providing cover for anti-gun senators who want a piece of legislation on their record to give their constituents the appearance they are pro-Second Amendment."
Conservation groups mightily oppose the bill, mostly because of a provision that limits the power of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate hunting.
Gun-control groups — like Mayors Against Illegal Guns — don't have a similarly scary rating formula, but they do have campaign chests that have been growing increasingly robust lately. MAIG has run ads against Pryor, Landrieu and Hagan this cycle.
Pryor, in turn, ran an ad proclaiming that he wasn't going to listen to what Michael Bloomberg — who started MAIG — had to say about gun legislation.
Other gun control groups have backed several of these senators in 2014. Americans for Responsible Solutions, former representative Gabrielle Giffords's (D-Ariz.) organization, has supported Hagan and Udall.
Campaigning Democrats are going to face pushback regardless of how they vote on the bill, or how it could change in the amendment process. But they likely fear the pro-gun groups the most. The NRA has given money to Pryor's and Hagan's opponents, and could spend more in the upcoming months. Even more importantly, the voters in these states tend to trend conservative.
So it seems unlikely that anyone is going to be too jazzed about voting for the Bipartisan Sportsmen Act except for those legislators who hope it could give their campaign whatever infinitesimal boost it might eke out. Many Democrats, like Blumenthal, voted against bringing the bill to the floor because it didn't do enough to prevent gun violence. Several Republicans voted against bringing it to the floor because they thought its only purpose was to give a thumbs-up to legislators they hope lose in November so the GOP can take back the house. Other moderate Republicans can be counted on to vote for gun control measures as predictably as certain moderate Democrats vote against them.
Several senators have said that the bill's chance of passage is hindered if there isn't an opportunity to add amendments, and if amendments are added to the bill, it's going to make moderates squeamish about voting for it.
In the end, this legislation seems to have as much of a chance of making it through the Senate as the last handful of bills that tried.