Think the frontrunner for the 2016 Republican nomination is going to get crosswise with the NRA by voting for new gun regs? Me neither.
The challenge for Rubio’s communications team: Craft a statement that screams “reasonable!” for the benefit of national swing voters while committing to nothing beyond respectful consideration. Here’s what they came up with.
“In the aftermath of the unspeakable tragedy in Newtown, Sen. Rubio, like millions of Americans, is looking for public policy changes that would prevent such a horrible event from happening again,” spokesman Alex Conant said. “He remains a strong supporter of the Second Amendment right to safely and responsibly bear arms. But he has also always been open to measures that would keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. The challenge with gun laws is that by definition criminals do not follow the law. For example, Connecticut’s gun laws, some of the strictest in the nation, were not able to prevent this atrocity. Nevertheless, he supports a serious and comprehensive study of our laws to find new and better ways to prevent any more mass shootings.”
So, to sum up, he’s against criminals and lunatics possessing weapons and wants to do more to prevent lethal rampages. Reasonable! He also has an A rating from Gun Owners of America and a B+ from the NRA, which is an interesting story. Until 2006 he had an A from them too; then, after he became speaker of the state legislature, he voted for an NRA-backed bill to permit gun owners to bring their weapons to workplace parking lots. But because the bill was blocked on its first try by the Florida Chamber of Commerce and eventually was passed with compromise language, the NRA concluded that he hadn’t done enough as speaker to advance its agenda. The result was a new grade of B+, which sounds relatively high but in fact is relatively low by Senate Republican standards. According to WaPo’s spreadsheet, the only GOPers with a worse grade are Susan Collins, Dan Coats, and Mark Kirk; meanwhile, fully ten Democrats have a higher rating than B+, which tells you what Obama’s up against in trying to get a bill passed here.
A man with a B+ from the NRA will be eager to impress conservative primary voters with his commitment to the cause so I’m trying to imagine a bill that Reid could bring up which might conceivably earn Rubio’s vote. Maybe, given what the statement says about keeping guns out of the hands of the wrong people, he’d support extending background checks to private gun sales? As recently as two years ago, his spokesman confirmed that he supports “reasonable restrictions” like background checks and waiting periods. But for Rubio to vote yes, Reid would likely have to float it as a separate bill; if he jammed it into some sort of omnibus gun control package, Rubio will obviously vote no on grounds that it goes too far. In fact, that’d be the optimal outcome for him. He’d get to give a floor speech alluding to “some good ideas” in the Democratic bill (reasonable!) before explaining why he must, alas, vote no to protect the rights of gun owners. And why not? A bill requiring background checks for private sales would have nothing to do with Sandy Hook. After all, Lanza didn’t get his guns that way. Whatever the Democrats propose is all but guaranteed to be disconnected from the actual facts of the horror that inspired the policy chatter this weekend, right down to the fact that mass shootings are not, in fact, becoming more frequent in the U.S., so if your top priority is addressing what happened in Newtown, you might as well vote no. The only measure related to Lanza’s M.O. that might come up is a ban on high-capacity magazines, and that may not be something Rubio goes for. His thinking on this subject seems, quite correctly, to focus on better screening of gun owners, not tinkering with the weapons themselves. The question is, if Reid floats a ban on high-capacity magazines and nothing more, would that be a “small” enough incursion that some Republicans (if not Rubio) would feel politically safe voting for it?