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Gun Control Battle: Any Room For Political Leeway?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program we will tell you about an up and coming emcee who's making a splash in Los Angeles and he's not somebody you might expect to see rocking the mic. That's just one of the stories NPR's new Code Switch team will be bringing you. We'll tell you more about that in just a few minutes.

But first it's time for our political chat. On Wednesday the Senate failed to pass any of the new gun control proposals advocated by President Obama. That included a bipartisan bill that would've expanded background checks for gun purchases. President Obama spoke in the Rose Garden yesterday after the bill's defeat. Here's a clip.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I've heard some say that blocking this step would be a victory. My question is a victory for who? A victory for what? All that happened today was the preservation of the loophole that lets dangerous criminals buy guns without a background check.

MARTIN: So why did the bill fail and what does that mean for the president's other initiatives? We wanted to talk about that and other political news of the week so we've called, once again, Maria Teresa Kumar. She is the president and CEO of Voto Latino. That's a non-partisan group that encourages Latino engagement in politics. Welcome to our new Washington D.C. studios, Maria Teresa. Thanks for joining us.

MARIA TERESA KUMAR: Thank you, Michel. I'm absolutely stunned. It's gorgeous.

MARTIN: Why, thank you. I did it all myself.


MARTIN: Also joining us from Chicago, Lenny McAllister. He's a Republican commentator and author of the book "Diary of a Mad PYC: Proud Young Conservative." Lenny, thank you so much for joining us once again.


MARTIN: Also here with us in Washington D.C. Ron Elving, NPR's senior Washington editor. Ron, I'm going to ask you to set the table for us. A bipartisan coalition led by Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania announced this compromise with a lot of fanfare, if I can call it that.

The polls show that background checks are not controversial among the American people. In fact, an April poll found that 91 percent of Americans support universal background checks. A lot of people are just shocked that this happened. So, given your Washington experience, are you?

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Not really. And the reason I am not really shocked is because I understand the way that individual senators determine how they're going to vote on something like this. Sure, they look at polls. Sure, they look at election results. But they also think about their own next election and they think about the people who are going to matter to them most. And in that regard, they think about intensity of specific in many cases one issue support and organizations that know how to organize that support.

So if you are, as about half the Senate is, from a relatively low population state and you know that in your state there are a great number of people who own guns, maybe many guns, and that they can be easily made to feel that those guns are somehow going to be confiscated - registered and then confiscated. And if you know that there is an organization - the NRA and there are others - that will tell people that any bill, no matter what it actually does, is a precursor to the registration and seizure of their guns and you know how that makes those people react, you have to decide if you are willing to literally risk your political life, either in a primary or in a general election, even in a primary, that you're willing to risk your political life to vote for these background checks and to have people approve of that in some sort of more superficial way overnight.

MARTIN: Lenny McAllister, you just finished a special election in an effort to join the Congress and running in a special election in Chicago where - condolences to the fact that you didn't prevail in that. How do you assess something like this from your standpoint as a - both as a Republican, you know, activist, sometime, you know, candidate but also as a person who represents - who was hoping to represent an area where people do very much fear and have been the victims of gun violence? How HowHHas';dikfnjad'sfijdid you assess this? What do you have to add to what Ron had to say?

MCALLISTER: He's right on point with a lot of this. Most of the time people are more concerned about their next election and who they have to please to make sure that they can stay in safe zones. I mean, you look at the House of Representatives, the party or the body which I was running for. You have gerrymandered seats where if you can get past the primary you're pretty much OK.

The vast majority of the time we had a 10 percent approval rating of Congress and yet we have at least 75 to 80 percent of Congress people being reelected despite that low approval rating. So more often than not, and in this case it was the Senate, you have people that are more concerned about their elections. But I also think that people, when it comes to gun violence, we have to make sure that we're looking at the long-term perspective.

Are we looking at illegal guns? Are we really enforcing the laws that are in place right now? And as long as we can say that we're not enforcing the laws that are in place right now - and Vice President Biden said this months ago - as long as we have that in play it provides enough political leeway for the senators and even if it ever got to the House of Representatives, the congressmen that would vote no towards expanding background checks because it says, hey, we're not enforcing what's on the books now.

So basically what you want to do is put more on the books that we're not going to enforce. It allows them to cozy up with the NRA. It allows them to stay safe. And it allows people to stay on their sides and bicker while nothing's getting done.

MARTIN: Maria Teresa, what does this - well, first, obviously, I'm interested in your analysis of this vote.

KUMAR: Yeah.

MARTIN: You know, being a congressional staffer is also kind of part of your portfolio on the other side.

KUMAR: So I think...

MARTIN: First of all, how do you assess this? But I'm also interested in what you think this portends for other important issues that are coming down the pipe too, including immigration reform.

KUMAR: Right. So I actually think that the NRA has actually completely miscalculated their own base. When you look at the overwhelming support of the membership, 79 percent actually believe that this type of legislation should have absolutely gone forth. So I actually think that they're miscalculating it.

MARTIN: Can I just add one thing to that?

KUMAR: Yeah.

MARTIN: The poll that I cited earlier, an April 4th poll by Quinnipiac University found that 91 percent of Americans overall support background checks, but 88 percent of households in which people say they had admitted that they had a gun, 88 percent of those households also supported background checks.

KUMAR: Exactly. So I actually think that the NRA right now is not listening to its membership. So I think that they're going to be very surprised because there's also another person that's playing very big in this political game and that's Bloomberg. If you look what happened most recently, we had a congressman, Joe Baca, who had been - he has basically been in the Congress more than 10 years, a congressional member. He was not on the right side of the issue for Bloomberg so Bloomberg used him as a test case example and flooded - flooded - his election campaign with close to like $6-, $7 million two weeks before the election. And what happened is his opposition, another Democratic woman, actually won the seat. And I think that that's the miscalculation right now is that, one, the membership of the NRA has changed, and, two, you have a player who has a lot of money and is not afraid to use it.

MARTIN: Well, I don't know. Ron, what do you think about that? I mean, couldn't that be a double-edged sword? I mean, one of the arguments that people make about the NRA now is that they only represent a fraction of gun owners. So if you've got a very wealthy person like Mayor - New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg who's introducing a countervailing force, I mean, couldn't that just make people feel, well, here's another outsider bringing his own politics to bear in my district and I don't want to hear it?

ELVING: Well, and we saw some of that in that Chicago special election where one candidate was supported by Mayor Bloomberg and did win, but may have won anyway. And a case was made against Mayor Bloomberg getting involved. I think the problem with the California example is it's two Democrats and you're talking about trying to influence people who probably are part of the 90 percent of the country that supports background checks. And they're choosing between two candidates who basically they could accept on other issues.

The test case we need to see of Bloomberg's power is whether he can go into a suburban district, say, or a rural district or a mixed ex-urban district, and defeat a pro-gun, pro-NRA Republican and elect a pro-gun control - and let's call it gun control in this instance, I know there's a lot of back and forth about the language, but let's call it a gun control Democrat in that ex-urban district. If that can happen because of Bloomberg's money, then he will be the equal of the NRA.

MARTIN: Right.

KUMAR: Well, and I...

MARTIN: Let me just say if you're just joining us that's NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. We're talking about gun policy and other issues before us in our political chat. Our other guests are Maria Teresa Kumar of Voto Latino and Republican commentator who actually ran in that district you were just talking about, Lenny McAllister. Maria Teresa?

KUMAR: So I guess what's curious about Bloomberg is that he's not married to Democratic candidates. He's just basically married to folks that fit his issue. So he can actually run people that are actually a little left of that Republican and still have a chance with a lot of moderate Republicans in the - so that's going to be - I mean, I think it's going to be a really interesting factor.

MARTIN: Lenny, let me ask you that. I mean, since that was the race you ran, do you feel that that infusion of cash made a difference in your race? I mean, you're a Republican running in a - but you were a Republican running in an overwhelmingly Democratic district, anyway, so...

MCALLISTER: Well, I mean, there's...

MARTIN: When you hadn't lived very long, to be honest.

MCALLISTER: There's - well, I was there for three years. There's 50 percent independence in that district. Remember, it was redrawn, so a lot of Kankakee County, which I did win, is conservative and Will County. A lot of Will County is conservative, so when you saw Mayor Bloomberg's money - and I congratulate the future congresswoman from the District of New York because she's going to have a very wonderful time representing Mayor Bloomberg's position and she's going to be cast as that for the next two years.

The problem with that and with him doing that is it now scares people that would probably go up against the NRA. I mean, I wasn't a big gun person. I've never been a big gun person, but if you have to choose between going against Bloomberg's money, which Debbie Halvorson got swamped with ads in January, reminiscent of what Newt Gingrich went through with Mitt Romney and I. Literally, it was that bad.


MCALLISTER: So you have a choice to either go against Bloomberg and face the NRA, which has history there that you're going to be facing against, or side with the NRA and go against Bloomberg, who has...


MCALLISTER: ...unlimited resources. That's the problem when you have somebody like Bloomberg just jump into a district that he lives approximately 1,000 miles away from.

MARTIN: OK. Ron Elving, we have about a minute and a half left, so I wanted to return to the question I was asking Maria Teresa Kumar, which - what does this portend, if anything, for the other big issues that the president's, you know, pushing an agenda for? We're going to hear tomorrow about the gang of eight on this program. They've brought forth an immigration reform proposal, which has a path to citizenship which is controversial for a lot of people. What do you think it portends, if anything? Or are the politics of gun violence, gun safety so distinct that it really doesn't mean anything for anything else?

ELVING: I would tend more towards the latter. I think that guns are a special issue in the United States. They have the 2nd Amendment protecting them. That's a huge part of what we're talking about. You have an urban-rural split on this that's terribly important.

I don't think it says much about the president's influence on immigration. I think where the president has already largely won the immigration debate was back in November of 2012 with the numbers of Hispanic voters who turned out for him and Asian-American voters who turned out for him, over 70 percent in both cases. That's what's changed all of the dynamic on immigration.

MARTIN: Well, we'll talk more about that in the days ahead, certainly. Ron Elving is NPR's senior Washington editor here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Maria Teresa Kumar is president and CEO of Voto Latino. That's a nonpartisan group that encourages Latino engagement in politics. Lenny McAllister was with us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. He's a Republican commentator and radio host.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

KUMAR: Thank you.

ELVING: Thank you, Michel.

MCALLISTER: Thanks, Michel.

KUMAR: Thanks, Michel.


MARTIN: Coming up, when Korean-American rapper Dumbfoundead first tried rocking the mic, he just rapped what he'd already heard.

DUMBFOUNDEAD: I think a lot of Asian rappers, when they were first coming up, they'd specifically just cling onto, like, black culture.

MARTIN: But now, he says Asian MCs like himself are creating a new voice that's all theirs. NPR's Code Switch team brings us the story of Dumbfoundead and how the way we talk about race is changing. That's ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.