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For Democrats, gun politics are bad politics

By Dana Bash, CNN Senior Congressional Correspondent
updated 7:27 PM EDT, Fri July 20, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bloomberg: "We have a right to hear" from Obama and Romney on guns
  • Ex-congressional aide: "For many Democrats, it's smart politics" not to join gun debate
  • The Democratic-led Senate hasn't voted on any gun legislation in three years
  • White House race could be decided in states where NRA has influence over swing voters

Anderson Cooper anchors "AC360" from Aurora, Colorado, scene of the deadly movie theater shooting, at 8 and 10 ET Friday night on CNN.

(CNN) -- The sun was barely up when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg used the Colorado massacre to scold President Obama and Mitt Romney for ignoring the gun issue.

"This is a real problem. No matter where you stand on the Second Amendment, no matter where you stand on guns, we have a right to hear from both of them concretely," Bloomberg argued.

Bloomberg challenges Obama, Romney to take action on guns

He has a point -- gun policy is a back burner debate these days, largely because Democrats who had pushed for tighter gun laws concluded it's bad politics.

After the 1999 Columbine shooting, Democratic Vice President Al Gore played a central role in trying to pass ill-fated gun control legislation. On the campaign trail during his 2000 presidential run, he argued for "common-sense gun safety measures."

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Democratic strategists said they believe Gore and other Democrats lost critical votes in rural America by pushing for stricter gun laws.

So, Democratic Party leaders began to recruit candidates who could win those largely red districts and states, candidates who ran on support for gun rights.

Jim Manley worked in the Senate for more than 20 years as a top aide to Democrats Sen. Ted Kennedy and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. He witnessed the change up close.

"Democrats finally figured out that this was an issue that they were getting walloped on in many Western, Southern states and many swing states," Manley said. "So they began a subtle shift to try to coordinate and/or get more pro-gun Democrats to run."

"For many Democrats, it's smart politics not to get into the gun control debate," he said.

Obama on shooting: This isn't a day for politics

So, even though President Bill Clinton signed an assault weapons ban in 1994 with fanfare, it lapsed in 2004 without much of a fight.

Even after major tragedies shoved the gun issue into the headlines, there was some talk, but little action.

Romney calls for unity after Colorado shooting

The 2007 Virginia Tech massacre resulted in a minor change: beefing up background checks for the mentally ill.

Last year's assassination attempt of then-Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Arizona, produced only a few calls to make high-capacity magazines like those used in that shooting illegal.

"There is no earthly reason for these weapons to have that kind of bullet capacity," argued Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-New Jersey, one of the few remaining anti-gun stalwarts.

But Senate Democrats wouldn't hold a vote, and Giffords' Republican colleagues in the House said at the time new laws were useless.

"Bad guys are going to get guns, they're going to get clips and they're going to do bad things," Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Michigan, said then.

In fact, the Democratic-led Senate hasn't voted on any gun legislation in three years, since defeating a GOP measure that would have required states to recognize each others' gun laws.

Why? Many still point to the National Rifle Association

Spokesman: NRA tweeter was 'unaware' of Colorado shooting

"The NRA is an extremely powerful organization and they deliver votes and they deliver money," said Manley, who now works for QGA, a public affairs group in Washington.

In the wake of the Colorado movie massacre, the NRA issued a statement steering clear of gun politics.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families and the community. NRA will not have any further comment until all the facts are known," said Andrew Arulanandam, the NRA's director of public affairs.

Because gun issues are not at the forefront of the political debate, the NRA's clout isn't talked about as much as it was in the 1980s and 1990s, when gun policy was a hot topic.

But the NRA is still active and not afraid to throw its weight around on topics that even tangentially involve gun policy.

For example, earlier this summer the NRA warned vulnerable House members that it was watching their vote on whether to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt over the failed "Fast and Furious" gun-walking operation.

NRA Executive Director Chris Cox has said his group supported the contempt vote because of the Justice Department's "obstruction of congressional oversight of a program that costs lives in support of an anti-gun agenda."

At the end of the day, of those seeking re-election who voted in favor of contempt, more than half are listed in competitive districts by the Cook Political Report and rely on conservative support -- including endorsements and cash from the NRA -- to survive their tough political battles.

The NRA has reported more and more contributions to Democrats in recent elections -- from $236,330 in 2008 to $373,500 in 2010 --- still far less than the $911,250 the organization gave to Republicans that year.

When it comes to presidential politics, the NRA and the Obama campaign both know full well that he could win or lose re-election in battlegrounds like Virginia and Ohio, where the NRA has significant sway over some swing voters.

That's why the president is trying to heed the lesson of Gore and not go there when it comes to gun control.

That hasn't kept the NRA from mobilizing members against him.

"When we're done speaking out, sir, gun owners will have made the difference in key precincts in battleground states," NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre told the organization's meeting in April.

"You'll have us to blame for your defeat in November," he said, rallying the crowd.

CNN's Allison Brennan contributed to this report.

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