April 12, 2013

The gun debate: Suburban growth alters political calculus

In traditionally gun-friendly states, the shift from rural to suburban forces politicians to recalibrate.

By PHILIP RUCKER and PAUL KANE The Washington Post

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Janelle Tupper places a cross, one of about 3,300 symbolic markers assembled Thursday on the National Mall in Washington to represent victims of gun violence that occurred after the December 2012 shootings in Newtown, Conn.

Washington Post photo by Matt McClain

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"On the one hand, this compromise was enormously bold and took real political courage," said Matt Bennett, a gun-control proponent and senior vice president at Third Way, a centrist think tank. "But on the other hand, it was very sensible and smart politics because it really meets the moment that we're in, which calls for that kind of flexibility and compromise."

Even so, the demographic shifts are creating complicated political equations for many lawmakers, particularly senators, who must balance the need to represent their states' suburbs while also factoring in a pro-gun voter base that might be smaller in number but more energized. The NRA, with about 5 million members, remains a potent grassroots force, even in states with fast-growing suburbs.

"An intense minority trumps an apathetic majority," said Whit Ayres, a longtime Republican pollster. "On no issue is that more true than on gun issues,"

Consider Georgia, where a growing number of voters live in the suburbs sprouting up around Atlanta.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.. acknowledged that the constituents calling his offices in this once overwhelmingly pro-gun state are split.

"I've probably heard from as many pro-Second Amendment folks as well as the same number of folks who'd like some sort of measures put in place to control," Chambliss said, noting that he has not decided whether to vote for the background checks compromise.

In Pennsylvania, Toomey said reaction to his Wednesday announcement of the background checks compromise has been mixed. He said he plans to spend the next few weeks explaining the intricacies of his proposal to voters back home, as well as to his colleagues in Washington.

"The more people learn about what this bill actually does -- how it does it, how reasonable it is, the fact that it doesn't undermine any law-abiding citizen's Second Amendment rights -- I think support will grow," Toomey said.

The most likely Republicans to lead a bipartisan push on gun legislation -- especially in the House -- appear to be those representing suburban districts.

The three-county ring of suburbs around Philadelphia have long been one of the central battlegrounds for control of the House. Once solid turf for centrist Republicans, voters there have backed Democrats for president in the last six elections -- but have split their votes in congressional races.

To win back the House in 2014, Democrats have targeted those seats, as well as dozens of other similarly suburban districts, with a recruiting effort focused on finding non-ideological "problem solvers."

One such Republican incumbent in Pennsylvania being targeted by Democrats is Rep. Pat Meehan, a former prosecutor who easily won re-election last year in the Philadelphia suburbs. In February, he stood alongside Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., at a news conference backing a bipartisan proposal to make gun trafficking a federal crime and penalize gun sales through so-called "straw purchases."

"People at home are sort of looking for Congress to be a little more pro-active in dealing with the nation's issues and challenges," Meehan said. "So to the extent that we aren't responsive to issues of the moment, there's a growing sense of frustration."


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