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Gun control supporters ponder path forward after Senate defeat


Although Washington’s battle over gun control ground to a sudden halt earlier this month, proponents of overhaul legislation say the fight is far from over. But while the political ground may have shifted, there is no denying the massive sway of the National Rifle Association and the perception that the window of opportunity to strengthen gun laws in the wake of the Newtown shootings has closed.

Following the Senate's vote to block consideration of legislation to expand background checks to gun sales online and at shows, the NRA and its pro-gun allies seem as powerful as ever, especially among Republicans and Democrats representing conservative-leaning states.

Sen. Bob Casey joins "Morning Joe" to discuss the failed gun control legislation and explain why he thinks that reform will happen in the next election cycle.

President Barack Obama had embraced gun control as a centerpiece of his second-term agenda following December's massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, but the NRA was still able to beat back a bipartisan proposal on background checks that was watered down considerably from the types of reforms the White House first espoused.

But supporters of new gun laws assert that their failure last week was only temporary, and that they can still prevail in the long term.

"They've [the NRA] been around since 1871, and virtually unopposed for a generation. You don't dislodge that kind of influential force very quickly," said Mark Glaze, the director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the pro-gun control group founded and funded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

"The gun lobby's been around for a very long time, and it's going to take members of Congress a long time to learn that the ground has shifted under them," Glaze added.

Indeed, public opinion appears to be on the administration's side. Fifty-five percent of Americans said in April's NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that they support tougher gun laws -- roughly the same number who expressed a similar sentiment in the weeks following Newtown.

But after the NRA's victory last week, in which the Senate fell six votes short of advancing a bipartisan compromise on background checks, political observers ask the inevitable question: If not now, then when?

The administration's gun proposals were far less robust than the package Obama debuted before his State of the Union address. Democrats have all but abandoned efforts to outlaw high-capacity ammunition clips and reinstate a ban on assault weapons, votes on each of which failed last week in the Senate.

Related: Toomey's background check plan shy of 60 votes

Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., had crafted a scaled-back measure to expand background checks, but they struggled to unite even Democrats -- especially those from red states who face re-election next fall -- behind the effort. Before last week's vote, victims of gun violence including former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and the families of the Newtown shooting victims swarmed Capitol Hill in an all-out lobbying blitz. And Bloomberg's group launched considerable advertising efforts in recent weeks to combat the NRA's influence.

But even under these relatively promising (political) conditions, Obama and gun control advocates fell short – though their “failure” was in part due to Republican dissenters’ demand that each proposal clear a filibuster-proof, 60-vote threshold. (Otherwise, Manchin-Toomey would have passed with 54 votes.)

The gun bill’s inability to advance is a testament to the enduring influence of the NRA, even though the gun-rights group has faced some ridicule for the far-from-polished performance of its executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, in opposing any new gun control initiative.

LaPierre has blamed violent video games and rap music -- both cultural cues from the 1990s -- as much as anything for recent incidents of gun violence. And his far from serious counter proposal to the administration has been to place an armed security guard in every school in America.

And yet, few GOP and red-state senators have been willing to cross the NRA, which has doggedly opposed expanding background checks (despite having backed the exact same proposals over a decade ago). Even if the Senate legislation were to muster enough support for passage, it is more difficult to conceive of how it would manage to survive in the Republican-held House of Representatives.

And while proponents of stricter gun laws privately say they never expected to win a renewed ban on assault weapons or limits on magazine capacity, the defeat of even the background checks bill registered as a disappointment. But those same proponents argue that they’re in gear for a long battle, and won’t give up their fight.

“There's no question it's going to take some time to turn this around, and the electoral part is some of the mix. We'll see how November 2014 goes,” Glaze said. “We will do whatever’s necessary.”

And already, the Democratic donor class has taken note.

Take, for instance, former White House chief of staff Bill Daley’s op-ed on Monday in the Washington Post, in which he excoriated Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., of betraying him on the issue of guns.

“So I’ll have some advice for my friends in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles: Just say no to the Democrats who said no on background checks,” Daley wrote. 

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