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Top gun rights priority prospects dim, even in GOP-controlled Washington

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) speaks with reporters outside the Senate chamber in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on December 1, 2017. (Alex Edelman/CNP/Sipa USA/TNS)

Gun rights activists spent record amounts last year to elect Republicans — but aren’t likely to get their biggest wish, nationwide concealed carry legislation, approved before the 2018 elections.

Activists are blaming the Republicans they help put in power — as well as Democrats — for the lack of action on the gun lobby’s No. 1 legislative priority.

“The gun rights community does not appreciate the fact that reciprocity languished for so long, and then following two tragic shootings, it seems the first initial response from some in the GOP was, ‘We need additional gun control,’ aka the NICS fix,” said Erich Pratt, executive director of the gun rights group Gun Owners of America.

That measure — aimed at fixing the National Instant Criminal Background Check System — gets support from members of both parties, and comes as the broken system failed to stop the shooter from purchasing the gun used in the Texas church massacre last month.

The House passed the background fix, tied to concealed carry reciprocity, which gun rights advocates have been pushing for years, and finally became a possibility when Republicans won control of the White House, House and Senate last year.

The Senate wants to take up the fix separately from concealed carry, causing some in the gun rights community to say GOP leaders are prioritizing a gun control measure over gun rights. Others fear they’re giving away a potential incentive they could use to get Democrats on board for concealed carry measure next year.

Gun Owners of America fought hard against the inclusion of the fix in the House bill, saying it attempts to strengthen a flawed background check program it wants ended altogether. The group asked members to vote down the whole package, with concealed carry, because the fix was part of the House legislation.

The National Rifle Association endorsed the fix, saying it would actually help law-abiding people get through background checks more easily and with fewer false-positives.

The NRA spent more than $50 million on 2016 campaigns. The vast majority of the money went to Republicans, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

The NRA was unusually active in the presidential race, more than quadrupling the amount it spent in 2012. The NRA spent $30.3 million to help elect President Donald Trump.

Since Trump took office, the NRA can count a handful of policy victories through executive orders, including the rollback of several Obama-era gun measures.

Spokeswoman Jennifer Baker told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Wednesday that concealed carry remains the group’s top legislative priority. That measure would allow people with gun licenses to carry concealed weapons across state lines.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who has championed concealed carry, says he hopes to move the background check fix and the concealed carry measures separately. He said looping the two together, as the House did recently, could risk delaying the background check fix.

“I support both of the bills, but I recognize that when you put them together, it makes it harder for us to do what we can do and can do now, and need to do now, which is pass (the background check bill),” Cornyn said.

The House approved both the fix and the concealed carry measure last month. The Gun Owners, annoyed that the bills were packaged together, urged members to vote down the whole package, with concealed carry, over the background fix’s inclusion.

In a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., a gun rights group ally, North Carolina Republican Rep. Ted Budd said advocates should “oppose any attempt to bring FIX NICS to the floor of the House for a vote unless it includes language substantially similar or identical to” the House’s concealed carry language.

The problem for the gun rights groups is the Senate.

Republicans control 52 of the 100 seats, a number that will drop to 51 next year when newly elected Democrat Doug Jones of Alabama is sworn in.

Sixty votes are needed to cut off debate, meaning Democrats have the power to stop a concealed carry reciprocity bill in the Senate.

Some gun rights proponents say attaching the NICS fix to concealed carry gives its best chance of garnering the Democratic support it needs.

But even with the fix attached, a number of Senate Democrats who supported concealed carry in 2013 say they wouldn’t vote for it again. They’ve seen mass shootings across the country since then, and want a more thoughtful approach.

John Feinblatt, president of the gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety, called concealed carry reciprocity “the gun lobby’s most dangerous idea,” adding that stopping its passage was the group’s “top priority.”

The NRA declined to comment on whether concealed carry should be attached to the background check fix in the Senate.

The NRA wants concealed carry up for a vote soon, even if it lacks the votes to pass in the Senate. If it fails, Baker said, it could be a top campaign issue against Democrats.

“There are a number of Democrats who are up for re-election from pro-Second Amendment states who would be hard-pressed to defy the wishes of their constituents in an election year,” said Baker, who pointed to Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana as examples.

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© 2017 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.