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Gun-Control Activists Launch Lobby Blitz

Gun-control proponents, outspent and outmaneuvered on Capitol Hill, are pushing back this week using the anniversaries of two high-profile tragedies to make the case for legislation that would close gun show loopholes.

Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group led by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino (D), is expected today to unveil a lobbying blitz to prod Congress to approve legislation that would require background checks on all firearm sales at gun shows.

The group will launch a six-figure media campaign that includes both national cable and selected state advertising spots as well as an online petition drive.

“The truth is the conventional wisdom is just wrong that you can’t do a gun issue,” said John Feinblatt, Bloomberg’s chief adviser for policy and strategic planning. He cited polling that shows support for closing the loophole and added that both President Barack Obama and his GOP opponent Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) pledged to close the gun loophole during the 2008 presidential campaign.

“The mayors are ready to say, ‘Now is the time to do it,'” Feinblatt said. “This is not a gun-control issue. It is a crime-control issue.”

The announcement comes on the 11th anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado and days after the third anniversary of the shootings at Virginia Tech.

Lori Haas, whose daughter was killed in the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, said requiring the background checks is a “middle-of-the-road position to take,” one that has already been approved by 17 states.

Haas, a spokeswoman for the victims’ families, said that even though the killer at Virginia Tech, a university student, did not buy a firearm at a gun show, “the connection to Virginia Tech is we know what happens when guns get in the wrong hands.”

The group Virginians for Public Safety sponsored an ad this week in the Richmond Times Dispatch that urged the state’s Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb to back legislation. Haas also said she is scheduled to talk to Warner about the issue this week.

In Colorado, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, which also helped in the Virginia media campaign, underwrote an ad in the Denver and Boulder newspapers calling on Sen. Mark Udall (D) to sign on to the gun show bill. The state’s other Democratic Senator, Michael Bennet, has already agreed to co-sponsor the legislation introduced by Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.).

In the House the measure is co-sponsored by Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), whose husband was killed and son severely injured in a shooting on the Long Island Rail Road.

The latest lobbying effort, however, comes at a time when the political climate has grown increasingly inhospitable for gun-control forces. The Democratic leadership has not been eager to push gun-control measures that they fear could generate a backlash for lawmakers who represent more rural or conservative districts.

Furthermore, anti-gun-control groups have been increasingly bold in pushing their agenda. They recently convinced the House leadership that the only way they could muster enough votes to pass a bill granting the District of Columbia a voting Representative was to include a provision that would largely gut the remaining gun-control laws in the District.

Other gun-rights groups have become more brazen in their public demonstrations, with one organization encouraging participants to bring their guns to a rally Monday in a national park in Virginia just outside of D.C.

In 2009, anti-gun-control groups spent almost $5 million on federal lobbying compared with the $261,000 that gun-control groups spent, according to a CQ MoneyLine analysis of lobbying disclosure reports filed with Congress.

The top-spending gun-control group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns Action Fund, spent $123,00 last year, most of which was paid to the Democratic lobbying firm the Raben Group.

The National Rifle Association, the biggest anti-gun-control group, shelled out $1.9 million on lobbying in 2009. It was followed by Gun Owners of America, which spent $1.4 million, and the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, which spent $1 million.

“It is a very powerful lobby. They are very good at what they do. They are good at intimidating lawmakers,” said Tom Mauser, the spokesman for Colorado Ceasefire, whose son was killed in the Columbine shootings.

Even though Colorado voters approved a referendum that closed the gun show loophole in 2000, Mauser said the surrounding states have not, meaning that guns purchased by people with criminal records are still coming into the state.

An NRA spokeswoman said Monday that the group did not want to respond to the latest lobbying effort by the mayors until it had been officially announced.

However, the NRA Institute for Legislative Action has posted on its Web site a rebuttal to what it called “the Gun Show Myth.”

The NRA said official firearm dealers are required to conduct background checks on those buying guns at shows. Only a person who is not a dealer can sell a firearm from his personal collection without conducting a background check. The gun group said less than 1 percent of criminals obtain their guns from gun shows.

“Many legislators have proposed to restrict gun show sales, but their proposals would simply create a bureaucratic nightmare — shutting down the shows while leaving criminal markets untouched,” the NRA statement said.

In 1999, the Senate included a provision to close the gun show loophole as an amendment to a juvenile justice bill. The legislation passed by one vote, with then-Vice President Al Gore casting the tie-breaking vote, but the provision died in conference.

While the measure has languished, advocates for the bill say the public is on their side. They cite a survey done last year by Republican pollster Frank Luntz for the mayors group that found 69 percent of NRA gun owners favor the background checks at gun shows.

They also argue that moves by some of the most conservative gun groups, such as bringing guns to political rallies and into Starbucks, could backfire.

“It will actively help our side when people see how extreme it is getting,” Mauser said.

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