Why Republicans won't budge on guns

Guns confiscated at New York public schools being displayed at a police news conference on May 25, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The calculation behind Republicans' steadfast opposition to any new gun regulations - even in the face of the kind of unthinkable massacre that occurred Tuesday (May 23) at an elementary school in Texas - is a fairly simple one for Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota.

Asked Wednesday what the reaction would be from voters back home if he were to support any significant form of gun control, the first-term Republican had a straightforward answer: "Most would probably throw me out of office," he said.

His response helps explain why Republicans have resisted proposals such as the one for universal background checks for gun buyers, despite remarkably broad support from the public for such plans - support that can reach up to 90 per cent nationwide in some cases.

The reality is that the 90 per cent figure probably includes some Republicans who are open to new laws, but would not clamour for them or punish a lawmaker for failing to back them, and the 10 per cent opposed reflect the sentiments of the GOP base, which decides primary contests and is zealous in its devotion to gun rights.

Most Republicans in the Senate represent deeply conservative states where gun ownership is treated as a sacred privilege enshrined in the Constitution, a privilege not to be infringed upon no matter how much blood is spilled in classrooms and school hallways around the country.

"We don't want to take away the rights of law-abiding citizens," said Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, the No. 3 Republican, explaining why members of his party have no interest in imposing new regulations on gun purchases, even after the murder of 19 children and two teachers, the latest in a seemingly unending series of shooting massacres in the United States.

The politics of gun control have always been fraught, and Democrats dodged the issue for decades following their loss of the House in 1994, which many of them attributed to their passage of an assault weapons ban.

The epidemic of mass shootings has prompted Democrats to change course, and now even Democrats from red states, such as Mr Jon Tester of Montana, have embraced background checks.

But as Republican voters have become more conservative, Republican lawmakers have dug in deeply against any notion that new strictures on gun purchases are an antidote to mass shootings.

They say that such restrictions are unconstitutional, even though adult Americans would continue to have easy access to weapons purchases if they became law.

Republicans like Senator Cramer understand that they would receive little political reward for joining the push for laws to limit access to guns, including assault-style weapons.

But they know for certain that they would be pounded - and most likely left facing a primary opponent who could cost them their job - for voting for gun safety laws or even voicing support for them.

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The political threat from any perceived support for gun restrictions was on display just this week in a hotly contested Senate Republican primary race in Alabama.

Mr Mike Durant, an Army helicopter pilot once considered a contender for the Senate nomination, was reproached by his opponents for an 11-year-old speech in which he seemed to suggest that disarming an urban population would be a step toward reducing crime.

"Mike Durant - dangerously wrong on guns," said one attack ad. Durant said his remarks, made at the Army War College, were related to the civil war in Somalia, where he had piloted a helicopter in the famous Black Hawk Down incident, and were being twisted and taken out of context.

But the damage was done, and the attack was considered a factor in his finishing third on Tuesday, in a contest whose victor was all but certain to be elected. Such outcomes are not lost on other Republicans.

The scene on Wednesday on Capitol Hill had a wrenching familiarity to it, as Republican lawmakers were mobbed by reporters and pressed on whether they could support something - anything - to curb the ongoing gun violence in the United States. Most who engaged said they were open to discussions, that they were happy to review what was on the table and that maybe, just maybe, some accommodation could be reached.

Democrats said they have seen it all before and know how it ends - with nothing.

"They are going to rope-a-dope the issue, hope that Congress adjourns, and 10 days from now the furore will once again die down," said Senator Edward J. Markey, from Massachusetts.

Other Democrats said they saw nothing from their Republican colleagues that suggested a change in sentiment - particularly with crucial midterms looming - or that would lead them to expect that progress could be made on gun safety, despite Tuesday's horrendous toll.

"They are disturbed, they are troubled, but they are not willing to change where they are," said Senator Chris Coons from Delaware.

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