Begich has signed on as a co-sponsor of a bill, drafted in consultation with the NRA, that would change the way mental illness is reported in the background check system — a measure that critics say could make firearms more easily available to the mentally ill.
Over the past two weeks, while Congress has been in recess, Begich said he was approached repeatedly by constituents who echoed NRA views, telling him not to, in his words, “mess with our gun rights” or “ban anything.”
The NRA’s recent successes on Capitol Hill — as well as a string of victories in state legislatures across the country — demonstrate the effectiveness of the group’s strategy to overcome a post-Newtown tilt toward gun control. The organization has drafted and circulated legislation, mobilized its members and continued to put pressure on politically vulnerable lawmakers. At the same time, groups attempting to promote stricter gun- control measures have faltered.
New restrictions that a couple of months ago seemed possible, even likely, such as bans on assault weapons and universal background checks on gun purchases, are now in doubt.
“The NRA is one of the most important groups in my state,” said Begich, one of several Democrats from conservative states who are up for reelection next year. He and others like him are the swing voters in the gun debate in the Senate, where deliberation over new legislation is expected to begin this month.
The gun rights group has suffered some serious setbacks since the December school shooting. New gun limits have passed in reliably liberal Maryland and New York and in Colorado and Connecticut, where two of the most recent shooting rampages occurred.
But even gun-control advocates acknowledge that the NRA is getting the better of them, both in Congress and state capitals across the country.
The NRA’s congressional operation is so effective that one of the gun lobby’s most outspoken critics, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), initially signed on as a sponsor of the NRA-supported background check bill. Blumenthal said he had no direct contact with the NRA when he signed on to the measure but had been drawn by the idea of a bipartisan initiative to improve background checks.
On Friday, Blumenthal withdrew his support, saying in an interview that he was no longer comfortable with the bill because of “serious unintended consequences” related to provisions governing the mentally ill.
The NRA strategy has stretched into the states, as well. For instance, the group dispatched a lobbyist to Minnesota for much of the past three months because lawmakers there were considering expanded background checks and other measures.