WASHINGTON -- The National Rifle Association warned in a campaign ad that if Barack Obama were elected president he would try to take away hunters' guns and ammunition. But with pro-gun Democrats a powerful force in Congress, it's already pretty clear there will be no messing with Americans' right to bear arms.
Twenty-two Democrats, including Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, joined Republicans last week in a Senate vote to negate the District of Columbia's tough gun registration requirements and overturn its ban on rapid-fire semiautomatic weapons. More than 80 House Democrats voted for a similar measure last year.
It's not certain that the gun measure, attached to a bill on D.C. voting rights, will be a part of the final version of that bill. House plans to take up the voting rights bill this week were postponed Tuesday as Democratic leaders struggled over how to handle the gun issue.
But with six of 11 Democratic Senate freshmen -- from pro-gun states such as Alaska, Colorado, New Mexico and Virginia -- voting for the proposal last week, it was a clear sign of where Congress is heading on gun issues.
"There has been a shift in thinking among Democrats in the last six to eight years, away from old ideas about gun control and limiting access to guns and toward ideas about how you actually reduce gun crime," said Matt Bennett of Third Way, a group of moderate Democrats active on gun control issues.
A case in point is new Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, a steadfast gun rights advocate when she represented a pro-gun, Republican-leaning district in upstate New York. Her appointment to succeed Hillary Clinton as New York's junior senator drew protests from gun-control Democrats, but after she voted against the D.C. gun amendment Republicans accused her of abandoning her principles for political expediency.
Gillibrand's spokesman, Matt Canter, said the senator supports Second Amendment rights. But she also believes local governments have the right to put legitimate limits on firearms and that law enforcement must have the tools to protect the public from gun violence, he said.
A major turning point came last June, when the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote overturning D.C.'s ban on handgun possession, confirmed that the Second Amendment gives private citizens the right to bear arms.
Gun control advocates were consoled that the decision also specifies that gun rights are not open-ended, that government can impose some restrictions in the public interest.
With the court ruling, the argument that gun control will lead to gun bans no longer applies, said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "The slippery slope doesn't go anywhere anymore, and I think people realize that."
For the time being, any gun-related legislation will be incremental. Helmke's group is asking the Obama administration to overturn a rule imposed in the last days of the Bush administration allowing people to carry concealed, loaded weapons in most national parks.
There will also be a push to repeal the so-called Tiahrt amendment, named after Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., that limits the authority of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to disclose gun-trace data to the public and requires that certain records submitted to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System be destroyed after 24 hours.
Both the Third Way's Bennett and Helmke said it may take another major gun crime, like the shootings at Columbine High School or Virginia Tech, to get Congress to act on more ambitious gun control initiatives.
Those include overturning a law enacted in 2005 that denies gun crime victims the right to sue firearms manufacturers and dealers for damages.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she plans to push legislation to reinstate a federal ban on some assault weapons that became law during the Clinton administration in 1994 but expired under the Bush administration in 2004. Another long-term goal is requiring that all gun shows conduct background checks before selling firearms.
The NRA's Cox said his group is gearing up to fight a new assault weapons ban, noting that Obama supports one and that Attorney General Eric Holder recently linked the proliferation of military-style weapons to the violence along the Mexican border. "It's laughable if it wasn't so serious to suggest that diminishing the Second Amendment will positively impact the situation down in Mexico," Cox said.
But he said the NRA is also prepared to work with Democrats, as it did in 2007 in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, to pass legislation making it easier to flag prospective gun buyers with a history of mental problems.