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The Politics Of Gun Control On Capitol Hill


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. This week, the horrific murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School recast the national conversation in more subdued tones. The president called for meaningful change at the vigil in Newtown on Sunday, and in a few minutes we'll focus on the prospects for gun control legislation on Capitol Hill.

But it's still Wednesday, and Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us to recap the week in politics, and it's a sad week for other reasons too. The body of Senator Daniel Inouye will lie in state at the Capitol tomorrow. A new report castigates the State Department for failures leading up to the death of four Americans in Benghazi. And politics continues too.

An historic appointment to the Senate from South Carolina. Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us here in Studio 3A. We begin, as usual, with a trivia question. Hey, Ken.

KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Hi, Neal. Well, speaking of that historic appointment, on Monday, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley appointed Congressman Tim Scott to be her state's next U.S. senator once Jim DeMint resigns, I guess next month. The question is: Who was the last person appointed to the Senate by a female governor?

CONAN: If you think you know the answer to this week's trivia question, the last person to be appointed to the U.S. Senate by a female governor, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. The winner, of course, gets a free Political Junkie T-shirt and the fabulous Political Junkie no-prize button.

But Ken, we begin whenever we can with actual votes, and this week the most important and most ignored votes of 2012.

RUDIN: Well, a lot of people think that President Obama was re-elected on November 6. Actually, that's not true. According to the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, he was re-elected on Monday, when the Electoral College met. Of course these are electors in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. They meet in their respective states.

And by most counts, what happened on Election Day on November 6 is what happened in the Electoral College, 332 electoral votes for President Obama, 206 for Mitt Romney, 270 needed to win, and so it looks like, when they officially count it in early January, my prediction is that President Obama will be re-elected.

CONAN: OK, let's move on, and this was...

RUDIN: By the way, President Obama was also named Person of the Year by Time magazine.

CONAN: By Time magazine.

RUDIN: So there's a two-fer there.

CONAN: A good week for him in that respect. But there were progress on the fiscal cliff negotiations over the weekend, when the speaker, Boehner, came - accepted the idea of raising tax rates on at least people making over a million dollars a year, and suddenly it seemed as if we're over the philosophical divide and just talking about numbers.

RUDIN: Well, I think it's more than that because by raising - I mean, first of all, President Obama said that taxes should be raised for those making $250,000 a year and over. The Republicans for the longest time said, uh-uh, no tax, you know, no taxes, no tax increases at all. Now Boehner's talking about over a million dollars a year, which is what Democrats had once talked about.

But the president said he's not going to go beyond $400,000 a year. So there is that - so you'll have Democrats saying, uh-uh, we're not going to vote for something that will just keep the entitlement cuts unchanged from this fiscal cliff. And there are some Republicans, notably Orrin Hatch today, the ranking Republican on Senate Finance, says there's no way I'm going to violate my pledge on raising taxes.

And you see more and more members of the House Republican Conference saying we're not going to go along with it either. So there will be a vote, ostensibly a vote on the House floor tomorrow. This is Boehner's vote on taxing those making a million dollars or more. And we don't know if the Republicans are on board.

CONAN: Well, that was Boehner's Plan B. He said we'll just pass that, just that part of it, raising taxes on those making over a million dollars, and well, this is how he described it.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: Our Plan B would protect American taxpayers who make a million dollars or less and have all of their current rates extended. I continue to have hope that we can reach a broader agreement with the White House that would reduce spending as well as have revenues on the table.

CONAN: And this was some puzzlement to Democrats, who saw it as a ploy. The leader of the Senate, Harry Reid, said it's not passing in our chamber. And today in a news conference, President Obama said a little hard to understand why Republicans who object to tax increases want to propose a bill to raise taxes and want budget cuts and propose a bill that has no budget cuts in it.

RUDIN: Well, there is a lot of bafflement of exactly what Speaker Boehner was trying to propose. Clearly the polls were indicating that the voters, Americans, were more on the side of the president and the Democrats on this and Boehner needed some kind of leverage, he thought, to make that change.

CONAN: And this is something the president pointed out in his news conference today. He was talking about who supports what and who campaigned on what.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Not only does the majority of the American people agree with me, about half of Republican voters agree with me on this.

CONAN: So the president clearly thinks he has momentum on his side and gets much of what he wants - well, maybe a recession, which he doesn't want. But if they go over the fiscal cliff, he gets plenty.

RUDIN: Yes, and of course this has tremendous political implications, as everything does. And despite the polls, there are a lot of Republicans who say, look, this is what we campaigned on, this is what we were elected on. Republicans still control the House of Representatives. And of course if they violate that pledge, Grover Norquist or not, there is likely to be primary battles in 2014.

CONAN: Let's see, we've got some people on the line who think they know the answer to this week's trivia question, and that is the last person to be appointed to the U.S. Senate who is - by a female governor, 800-989-8255. Email us, TALK...

RUDIN: You know, Neal, I love these questions.

CONAN: These are - who comes up with these?

RUDIN: I don't know. God knows.

CONAN: Let's start with Cheryl(ph). Cheryl's on the line with us from Milwaukee, Oregon.

CHERYL: Yes, and you know, right now I'm kneading rolls to make for Christmas. I'm making some Fan Tans, and I couldn't resist this answer because I think that it was Governor Ray, and she picked Slade Gorton.

RUDIN: Well, no. Well, because Slade Gorton actually was elected in 1980. As you well remember, he defeated Warren Magnuson. Slade Gorton was not appointed to the Senate. And then he was defeated in '96, re-elected in '88 to the other seat, but not appointed.

CONAN: And his Fan Tans were not very good, I'm afraid.

CHERYL: Oh, they're going to be great.

CONAN: No, yours are going to be great. Slade Gorton, terrible baker.

CHERYL: Thank you.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can go next to - this is - this is Bob, Bob with us from Rochester, Minnesota.

BOB: Yes, I believe it was Governor Sebelius of Kansas that was the last female governor to appoint a sitting senator.

RUDIN: Who was the last senator appointed by a female governor?

BOB: It would have been Sam Brownback.

RUDIN: That is not correct. Sam Brownback was elected in 1996.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much for the call. Again, if you think you know the answer to this week's trivia question, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Wait, we have an email. This is from Robin in Frederica, Delaware. Governor of Delaware appointed Ted Kaufman to the U.S. Senate to replace Joe Biden once he became vice president.

RUDIN: Well, that is correct. That is the correct answer.

CONAN: Ding, ding, ding.

RUDIN: Governor Ruth Ann Minner in January 2009 appointed Ted Kaufman, who of course did run for the full seat; that's the seat now won by Chris Coons.

CONAN: So Robin, we will get in touch with you by email to collect your particulars and send you a free Political Junkie T-shirt, and then you will also get that fabulous Political Junkie no-prize button, which of course only winners get.

RUDIN: I don't even have one.

CONAN: Hard to believe. So some interesting steps in the U.S. Senate this week, Ken. Tim Scott appointed to the United States Senate. We mentioned it earlier, but this is an historic appointment, the first African-American senator from South Carolina, the first Republican senator from the South since Reconstruction.

RUDIN: Well, the first senator, African-American senator from the South since Reconstruction, Republican or not; first Republican since Ed Brooke, who was defeated in '78 by Paul Tsongas. But you know, in a Senate that's only had four or five African-American members since Reconstruction, this is historic, and again, once again it's the kind of effort that the Republicans would like to say that we are not the white party.

I mean we always talked about how, if you looked at the demographics of who voted for Obama and who voted for Romney last month, of course it was a much more white electorate, basically, that voted for Mitt Romney. But then you have the Marco Rubios, the Ted Cruzes. And now Tim Scott. I don't know if it's just window dressing, but it is - it's certainly, as you say, absolutely an historic appointment.

CONAN: Well, anticipating, perhaps, the accusation that this was just window dressing, the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, herself of course a woman of color, said at the news conference when she appointed Tim Scott...

GOVERNOR NIKKI HALEY: Congressman Scott earned this seat. He earned this seat for the person that he is. He earned this seat for the results he has shown. He earned this seat for what I know he's going to do in making South Carolina and making our country proud.

CONAN: And a little overkill there.

RUDIN: Well, yeah, I mean clearly she was obviously responding to perhaps intended - perceived criticism that she was just doing it, making this announcement, this appointment because of color. And of course Tim Scott has only been in the Congress for two years; he was just elected, re-elected, to his second term last month.

But again, he was the favorite for a long time. It is a statement, whatever you want to make of it, and a historic statement by the Republican Party.

CONAN: After the withdrawal of Susan Rice under fire for her - before she's even nominated to be secretary of State - she will not be nominated. She's withdrawn her name. It now looks like John Kerry is going to get that nomination, perhaps as soon as Friday, which of course will - well, what's a year without a Senate election in Massachusetts?

RUDIN: Well, of course the famous one was January of 2010, following the passing of Senator Kennedy, and of course there was a temporary appointment of Paul Kirk. But Scott Brown, the Republican, won that seat. And of course there was shockwaves in the entire country, led to great Republican gains in the 2010 elections.

And perhaps maybe Scott Brown, who was defeated last month by Elizabeth Warren, may be up for another special election. Who knows? But I think the - I would guess the Democratic Party is more prepared in Massachusetts than they were in January 2010.

CONAN: We're going to be talking about gun control a little bit later in the program, but we cannot omit the fact that the governor of Michigan vetoed this week a piece of gun control legislation that would have authorized the concealed arms in places like, well, elementary schools.

RUDIN: Well, there are a lot of - there are a lot of - I don't know what else to call them, but pro-gun conservatives who say that perhaps the tragedy of Newtown wouldn't have happened had the teachers been armed, had been able to bring guns into school and been able to protect themselves and protect the students. Of course that's one of the debates that will go on, especially following what President Obama had to say today about this on this subject.

CONAN: And more on that later in the program, and we are aware - Speaker Boehner is speaking on the fiscal cliff negotiations even as we speak, and we'll bring you up to date on what he had to say later in the program. But we can't skip the news today of the passing of Robert Bork.

RUDIN: Well, you know, whenever you think of the bad blood between the Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, everyone says it goes back to this incident, that incident. It certainly goes back to 1987, when President Reagan appointed Bork to the Supreme Court, or attempted to. He nominated him for the Supreme Court.

But there were a lot of questions about Bork's views on race and women, the famous Ted Kennedy quote that said that in Robert Bork's America there will be no room at the inn for blacks, no place on the Constitution for women. Anyway, very controversial decision, went down 58-42. Robert Bork died today at the age of 85.

CONAN: And perhaps no Supreme Court nominee has spoken as candidly at their confirmation hearings since. Political Junkie Ken Rudin will stay with us. Up next, President Obama called for tougher gun laws today. On Friday, the NRA lays out what it calls for - meaningful contributions to the debate. We'll talk about the new politics of gun control. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. It's political junkie day, Ken Rudin with us as always. Ken, did you have a ScuttleButton winner this week?

RUDIN: We absolutely did, of course there were three buttons. There was a picture button of Carlton Fisk jumping up and down after his 1975 home run against the Cardinals, very dramatic game six. There was a button that said kill the death tax. And there was a button for re-elect Senator Cliff Hanson of Wyoming.

So if you add Fisk and kill and Cliff, you get the fiscal cliff. Yes, and Beth Riches(ph) of South Bend, Indiana, was the winner.

CONAN: And she will of course get a free political junkie no-prize button and T-shirt, and she will wear those proudly.

RUDIN: She will add to her riches, yes.

CONAN: OK, Ken's latest column and ScuttleButton, when he gets around to it, will be online at npr.org/junkie. In a few minutes we'll talk about what's changed in the debate over gun control. Call and tell us: What has your representative or the senators you have from your state said about gun control in the days following the incidents at Newtown, Connecticut, 800-989-8255. Drop us an email, talk@npr.org. And we'll get to those calls in just a moment.

But first to Hawaii. Before he died earlier this week, longtime Democrat Senator Daniel Inouye sent a letter to the governor with a strong suggestion about his replacement. That appointment process in Hawaii is more complicated than in some other states. Wayne Yoshioka is the political reporter with Hawaii Public Radio and joins us by phone from his office there. Good to have you with us today.

WAYNE YOSHIOKA, BYLINE: Good morning, Neal, aloha.

CONAN: Aloha, and what was Senator Inouye's suggestion?

YOSHIOKA: Well, Senator Inouye sent that letter to Governor Neil Abercrombie, and he said that U.S. Representative Colleen Hanabusa, quote, "possesses the intellect, presence and legislative skill to succeed him in the Senate." I think it's important to note that Governor Abercrombie campaigned for Senator Inouye back in 1959 and served with Senator Inouye with the congressional delegation for 20 years before becoming governor.

CONAN: So this would be his suggestion for an appointment, but Governor Abercrombie has a more complicated process than that to go through.

YOSHIOKA: Yes, the Democratic Central Committee has to send up three nominees, the names of three nominees from which Governor Abercrombie will choose from. And that list, you know, can be very diverse.

CONAN: So he will - how long is this expected to take?

YOSHIOKA: Well, the Central Committee plans to meet on December 28 and forward the names to the governor. The governor would like to make that selection before the new senators are sworn in January 3.

CONAN: And Ken, the death just the other day of Senator Inouye, Senator Akaka, the other longtime senator from the state of Hawaii, he is resigning at the end of this term, and - excuse me, yes, he's resigning and has been replaced. This is a generational change.

RUDIN: Oh absolutely. I mean, it's remarkable. Colleen Hanabusa basically will be the longest-serving member of the Hawaii delegation. When you think of Daniel Inouye, 50 years in the Senate, the second-longest in history, Akaka was in the Senate for 22 years. And the fact that all that great seniority that Hawaii long had, and Inouye, we're actually giving him short shrift here because he was a giant.

CONAN: We spoke about him yesterday on the program.

RUDIN: Ok, oh, you mean you have a show other than Wednesdays?


RUDIN: Oh, sorry. Anyway, but the point is, I mean, just tremendous amount of lack of influence that Hawaii has in Congress.

CONAN: And I wonder, clearly Wayne Yoshioka, the people of Hawaii are still mourning the death of Senator Inouye, but that loss of clout in Washington, that's got to be a factor in people's thoughts, as well.

YOSHIOKA: Well yes, and I think succession and seniority are not the top of mind for Hawaii voters, and it never has been. And that's why we ended up with two 88-year-old senators. But I think Danny Inouye brought to the table something more. I think he had stature not only as a person but as a war hero.

He fought with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. In 1944, that combat team rescued the 141st Texas Battalion. And when Senator Inouye went to Congress, he had two Texans greet him, namely Sam Rayburn, speaker of the House, and Senate Majority Whip Lyndon Johnson, both Texans. And I think his stature because of his 442nd combat record put him way far ahead of all his freshman colleagues.

CONAN: If memory serves, that was the most honored unit in the United States Army during the Second World War, and of course Senator Inouye himself a recipient of the Medal of Honor. It's a sad day for Hawaii, and we will talk more about the political transition there as it occurs. But Wayne Yoshioka, thank you very much for your time today.

YOSHIOKA: Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: Wayne Yoshioka, the political reporter at Hawaii Public Radio, with us from his office there. As investigators continue to search for answers in last week's mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, demands grow for a new conversation on gun control. Earlier today, President Obama announced that he's appointed Vice President Joe Biden to head a new task force and to report back with concrete solutions to reduce gun violence in less than a month.

Asked by reporters at the Brady Briefing Room at the White House if he believes we can move on this issue given the passage of time and the power of gun groups like the NRA, he had this to say.

OBAMA: I would hope that our memories aren't so short that what we saw in Newtown isn't lingering with us, that we don't remain passionate about it only a month later.

CONAN: The president also said this time the words need to lead to action. Well, call and tell us what your representative or your senator has said about gun control in the days since the shootings, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And John Gramlich covers legal affairs for CQ Roll Call. He joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us today.

JOHN GRAMLICH: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And NPR's correspondent for power, money and influence, Peter Overby, also with us in the studio. Nice to have you back on the program, Peter.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Thank you, good to be here.

CONAN: And John, the president has re-opened the conversation about gun control. Is there a new shift, a new field for him to operate in?

GRAMLICH: Well, what I think we're seeing is that there's always been three camps in the Congress: those who are strongly in favor of gun control; and those who are strongly against it; and then those sort of in the middle. What's different now is that that group in the middle seems to be growing a little bit.

But there are people who may have been in the group against gun control who are now leaving the door open to doing something.

CONAN: At least initially that group in the middle that might have shifted a little bit seems to be mostly Democrats. We've heard from Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the U.S. Senator John Warner of Virginia as well.

GRAMLICH: Right, although I understand that today Senator Manchin has walked back his comments a little bit. The last thing that I heard on that was that he stopped short of advocating for a specific policy. He said earlier in the week that he doesn't see the need for hunters to have assault weapons or high-capacity clips. And today he said that he wasn't advocating banning anything.

So he is still in the undecided category, but he may not be taking the steps that he was suggesting earlier in the week.

CONAN: And Peter Overby, listeners may hear that and hear the footsteps of the National Rifle Association, which has been largely silent. It finally broke its silence earlier today, said it would hold a news conference on Friday but holds tremendous sway over many in Congress.

OVERBY: That's right, it was silent. It's been silent basically for a week following the shootings. They said that, you know, it's out of respect for the victims and their families and that they will have a major press conference on Friday, where they hope to propose ideas to prevent something like this from happening again. What that is we don't know.

They're clearly on the defensive right now. They - you know, the tone in similar episodes of the past several years is that immediately there's an outcry, you know, don't politicize this immediately. And that tends to freeze the debate. You know, that call comes from the pro-gun-rights people. It freezes the debate...

CONAN: Don't make this decision on an emotional basis.

OVERBY: That's right, and there hasn't been so much of that this time. It's kind of striking, the difference.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you, John Gramlich, the horror of this particular incident, as Peter said, this one seems different.

GRAMLICH: It does seem different. I mean, you don't see the president shedding tears very often in public. Nancy Pelosi today, in her press conference advocating for specific legislation, also became emotional. It's a very emotional subject on Capitol Hill. And those who might in the past have been inclined to rule out gun control immediately are not doing so this time.

Generally they're saying that this has been a national tragedy and that we have to take our time to evaluate what happened and how to proceed.

CONAN: Ken, over the past, what, almost 20 years, most Democrats have avoided the conversation on gun control after terrible defeats in the 1994 elections, when many of them blamed their losses on their positions to pass the assault weapons ban that many are now calling to be reinstated.

RUDIN: Yeah, well, of course there are a lot of Democrats like Dianne Feinstein of California who have never backed away from calling for bans on assault weapons and things like that, or to reinstitute the ban that ended in 2004. But you're right, many middle-of-the-road blue dog Democrats- whatever's left of them - have been shying away.

Remember, during the presidential debate this year, President Obama, I think when they asked about gun controls, his first answer was, I still believe in the Second Amendment. I'm a very strong defender of the Second Amendment. So Democrats have always - at least since 1994, have felt this to be a losing issue. And as Peter said, we've seen these kind of horrors before. It's always been an outcry then it goes away. Maybe this time is different.

CONAN: And that's going to be the question, Peter, that is going to be on a lot of people's minds. But tell us about how the power of the gun lobby works.

OVERBY: The - well, first of all, the gun lobby is the NRA and a lot of smaller groups. The smaller groups tend to be more high decibel in their - in the way they talk about the issue. The NRA is relatively the voice of moderation, but it's still, you know, very hard line on these issues. And they do almost everything you could think of that an advocacy group would want to do to, you know, to flex its muscle in Washington.

It has 4 million members. It works really hard at building affinity with them, you know, through local organizations, through the American Rifleman and in other magazines, which are, you know, good magazines if you're interested in that stuff. They have the national conferences, the conventions that are, you know, truly national events. You know, they get national coverage. They get a massive amount of attention and great places to bond over these issues. And they take that to Capitol Hill. They grade members on - members of Congress on how they hold the line on gun issues. And they don't cut them much slack.

CONAN: So they issue actual grades. This...

OVERBY: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

CONAN: ...representative has an "A" or a B or an F.

OVERBY: And there's a difference between an A and an A+. They also raise a lot of money from their members, and they also raise money from the gun industry. They put about $18 - $19 million into the 2012 campaign, and that's a meaningful amount of money.

CONAN: And what kind of money comes in on the other side?

OVERBY: The gun control groups, according to OpenSecrets, put in a total of $3,268.

CONAN: That's a mismatch.


CONAN: Peter Overby, NPR's correspondent for Power, Money and Influence. Also with us here in Studio 3A is John Gramlich, a staff writer for legal affairs at CQ Roll Call. Of course, Political Junkie Ken Rudin is with us as well. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Ken?

RUDIN: You know, we always talk about how Republicans will always vote against gun - these gun control laws. But we also know that when Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, was running for re-election in 2010, he kept talking about his lifelong love of guns. And, John, you know, you're watching some Democrats in red states who are up in 2014, like Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Mark Begich in Alaska, those kind of Democrats, they're in a tough battle. I mean, right now, the emotion is on the gun control side, but 2014 could be a lifetime away from that.

GRAMLICH: Sure. And that's where the rubber hits the road in terms of actually getting the vote to pass something in the Senate. I mean, Senator Reid called very prominently this week for action on guns, but he himself voted against reinstating the assault weapons ban when that expired in 2004. So this requires movement from the leadership as well as the rank and file who may have different - difficult races in a few years.

CONAN: And you mentioned the Senate. Of course, Democrats have the majority in the Senate, not so in the House. Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Republican, Virginia - from Virginia and the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee has been quoted as saying he has no interest in moving any sort of gun control legislation. We're going to take a look at what happened here and what could be done to help avoid it in the future, but control is not something that I would support, he said.

Well, what has your representative said? What have your senators said since the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Tomasina, Tomasina from Ormond Beach in Florida.

TOMASINA: Yes. Thank you. I've called the Washington office of my congressman, John Mica, and his staff of, you know, regarding the banning of the assault weapons and the high-capacity clips. And the response I always get is, Mica is not in favor of new gun laws, and he supports the Second Amendment. A staff member also said that he's in favor of arming school teachers, which, to me, is ridiculous because with so many assault rifles in our population, we'd have to arm the teachers with the same assault weapons. And how crazy is that?

CONAN: All right, Tomasina. Thanks very much for the phone call. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Russ, and Russ with us from West Windsor in New Jersey.

RUSS: Hi. Both my senators, Lauterberg and Menendez, are pushing for strong action on gun control, for a comprehensive ban on military style assault weapons, high-capacity gun clips, closing all loopholes on background checks for gun sales. I think they recognize that there's not only compelling moral reasons after Newtown, but strong political reasons, you know? I feel that the demographics of the NRA supporters are like me, they're older white males. Their electoral power was surprising unimpressive in the November election and it ain't going to get any stronger in the future.

CONAN: Well, Ken, Russ says their electoral power was unimpressive in the last election. As you - I think you mentioned guns weren't really an issue in the last election.

RUDIN: No, they weren't a big issue. But, of course, as Peter Overby has pointed out, the NRA has not - the clout they had was still - was very effective. They knew which candidates to lean on, which not to lean on. But nothing really changed on guns in 2012.

CONAN: And Peter Overby?

OVERBY: Yeah. The demographic issue is one that the gun control people are zeroing in on. Hunting is a declining sport in America. The gun industry is more focused on militarized weapons than on hunting weapons now, also focused on self-defense weapons, concealed carry handguns, stuff like that. And they are focused - the argument is that they're focusing more on selling new guns to people who already own guns.

CONAN: And, yeah, it's interesting because, traditionally, we've seen a spike in gun sales after these incidents. It's always been ascribed to fear by some that there will be new gun control legislation. So buy now before it's illegal.

OVERBY: Right. And the other documented spikes that have come recently revolved around the election of Barack Obama.

CONAN: And there's also a spike in membership of the NRA, around incidents such as this.

OVERBY: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: You said there was one incident where it doubled. Peter Overby is with us, NPR's correspondent for Power, Money and Influence. Also John Gramlich, a staff writer for legal affairs at CQ Roll Call. Of course, it's Wednesday. Political Junkie Ken Rudin is with us. We want to hear what your U.S. representative, what your U.S. senators have said on gun control since the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. We'll also be hearing what John Boehner had to say in response to the president's rejection of plan B at his news conference earlier today. So stay tuned. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: Right now, we're talking with Political Junkie Ken Rudin. And if hearing us on the radio is not enough for you, we're going to take the show on the road. We've got a special event coming up, January 16th here in Washington, D.C. Ken and I will put on the Political Junkie road show, inauguration edition. We're putting together an evening on political puns, wit, bad jokes and maybe a good one and special guests, including Clarence Page, Nina Totenberg and Ted Koppel, of course, trivia as well and ScuttleButton. To find out how to get tickets, go to the TALK OF THE NATION page on Facebook. And, Ken, we did get a...

RUDIN: Did you say which - did you say wit...

CONAN: I did, wit. Yeah, what airs me. I know. No. It's - we did get a correction from earlier in the hour. This is from Sandy in Louisville, a - no, excuse me. This is from Peter in Arlington, Massachusetts. Today's ScuttleButton question about the reference to Carlton Fisk of the Red Sox jumping for joy at his homerun against the Cardinals after Fisk hit his homerun in the 12th inning against the Cincinnati Reds.

RUDIN: The Reds, of course. Of course.

CONAN: Almost as embarrassing is you missing it is me missing you missing it. It was the game six of the 1975 World Series. The emailer notes: Perhaps, the best game of all time. Others might note it was the game six the Red Sox fans like to remember.

RUDIN: Yes. Unlike game six in 1986 with the Mets, best two.

CONAN: Right now, our focus on the shifting politics of gun control. Call and tell us what your representative or U.S. senator has said about gun control in the days since the shooting in Connecticut, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Our guests, Peter Overby, NPR correspondent for Power, Money and Influence, and John Gramlich, staff writer for legal affairs at CQ Roll Call. And let's see. We get another caller on the line. This Tabitha. Tabitha with us from Henderson in Nevada.

TABITHA: Hi. Yes. Harry Reid is our senator here, and he supports the Second Amendment. And I believe it's because Nevada is largely a rural state. That is all.

CONAN: And that's all. Well, as we've heard, John Gramlich, the senator from Nevada has shifted ground a little bit.

GRAMLICH: He has shifted ground in the sense that he wants to see some action. And I think he is obligated to say that since the president himself has called for that. We'll see if he votes for an assault weapon's ban, should that come to the floor, or how hard he pushes for it. But just in saying that he wants to put this on the agenda, that is notably different from a few months ago.

CONAN: But the - Ken.

RUDIN: I was going to say, but NRA - as Peter pointed earlier, the NRA, also said they want to change the atmosphere, and they'll have more to say on Friday. But it's very possible Reid is doing the same thing as the NRA is saying, yes, changes have to be made, but nothing as specific as an assault weapon's ban.

GRAMLICH: Absolutely. I think everybody is waiting to see what NRA will say tomorrow and whether they will support specific legislation.

RUDIN: That's right, yeah.

GRAMLICH: That's a big question.

CONAN: Peter...

OVERBY: It - and the other thing about the assault weapon's ban is that the data on its effectiveness aren't real convincing, that, you know, it took effect, did not seem to have a big impact. I did a story when it expired and mostly what the gun owners said was that it drove up the price of the magazines, you know?

RUDIN: But also, the impact it really had was defeating Democrats in 1994.



CONAN: Here's an email from Rusty in North Fort Myers. I logged on to Senator Rubio's senate website and sent him an email, urging him to vote to restrict assault weapons and ammunition. I got a standardized email back that included the suggestion that I contact the senator by email rather than the U.S. Postal Service because due to security issues, it may take four weeks for the letter to get to his office. If there is a four-week waiting period for him to get a letter due to increase of security, should it take at least four weeks for someone to go through a background check to purchase any gun, much less an assault rifle?

And that was what the President was saying today, Ken, that access to mental health care ought to be as easy as access to guns. And he seems to have put himself on the line. He's appointed this commission. It's not a blue ribbon panel that's going to come back in six months. Less than a month that they can come up with concrete solutions, and he said he would put all the power of his office towards getting a quick vote and passage in Congress.

RUDIN: Yeah. I mean, he had - look, he's no longer worrying about re-election. He maybe have the opportunity to make some bold moves that he might not have wanted to do in the first term. But again, as far as mental health issues - and Mark Begich of Alaska has also said that that's what we should strengthen. But the person who had the guns in Newtown, Connecticut, was the mother of the shooter. The shooter who may or may not have had serious mental illnesses, he wasn't the owner of the guns. The mother had the guns. So even helping change mental health issues may not - certainly wouldn't have ended this tragedy in Connecticut.

GRAMLICH: And just in terms of the assault weapons ban, Connecticut has a state-level assault weapons ban.

CONAN: Let's go next to Joan, Joan on the line with us from Ann Arbor in Michigan.

JOAN: Yes, hi.


JOAN: How are you? My comment is that the governor just vetoed the bill that would have allowed concealed weapons in the schools.

CONAN: And we mentioned that earlier in the program, Ken. And that seems to be a significant development.

RUDIN: It is significant. First of all, I mean, the timing couldn't have been worse. I have, you know, concealed weapons in a school. But, you know, Governor Rick Snyder was, of course, under a lot of attention, shall we say, for passing or signing that right-to-work bill in Michigan. This was something - the former thing that's cheered by conservatives, perhaps maybe not so much of signing a veto vetoing this bill. So we'll see what political effects this has on Governor Snyder.

CONAN: And let's go next to - this is Bob, Bob with us from Lakewood in Colorado.

BOB: Hi, guys. Hey, I live just west of Denver, less than a football field. I live a couple of miles north of Columbine. This is Lakewood in Jefferson County. Columbine is in unincorporated Jefferson County, not in Littleton. But my representative is Ed Perlmutter. This is the seventh district, and he covers northern Jefferson County, across the top of Denver through Adams County and into Aurora, Colorado. And, of course, the theater is in his district. So he was on television - I believe the "NBC Nightly News" last night - and I saw him, and he had some very strong comments about putting forth legislation.

Now, I helped campaign for him, my state representative and my state senator, and Joe Coors ran against him and lost. And Peter Coors used to have ads on TV several years ago, saying I am the NRA. So we're looking at Ed. And Diana DeGette of Denver also is planning on proposing legislation, so I'm assuming that Ed Perlmutter and Diana DeGette will get together on some proposals. Now, we're all Democrats and we hardly think it's possible getting this through a heavily Republican Congress.


RUDIN: Bob, but you also have Senator Mark Udall who's up in 2014, and he's been pretty silent since the tragedy in Connecticut.

BOB: ...go. And, of course, Ed will be running again. And Brittany Peterson, who's my new state representative-elect, will be up for re-election again in two years. And one of her campaign leaders said, well, we're going to be calling you, so I know my work is cut out. And Mark Udall has already started some things, some TV ads about realize the state is 30 percent Democrats, 30 percent Republicans, and, well, one-third, one third independents.

CONAN: Well, Bob, that's the point I wanted to bring up next, and thanks very much for the phone call. There's been, John Gramlich, looks into the demographics of this that says you could look at every indicator that's going to divide people into Republicans and Democrats. The most sure indicator is gun ownership.

GRAMLICH: Yeah. Guns certainly have been a Republican issue, primarily. They certainly like to identify with the Second Amendment more so than Democrats tend to. We were speaking earlier about the lobbying and the influence of the NRA, and one thing that I think is very interesting that the gun control groups are doing right now is to try to drive a wedge between the membership of the NRA and the leadership of the NRA. That is a big talking point for them, especially this week. They're saying that there are Democrats who are members of the NRA. They're putting forward their own members of Congress who are NRA members and hunters and trying to blur those lines a little bit.

CONAN: And, Peter Overby, that's a point you raised in your story the other day, and that is that the charge that the leadership of the NRA is more extreme than its membership.

OVERBY: That's right. The NRA leadership has gone through several evolutions over the history of the organization. It's a long history. And just in the past few years, there was a - in effect, a coup which made the leadership much more hard line than it had been. Now, the thing that we may see here is whether the new leadership - there's a new president this year, David Keene, used to be head of the American Conservative Union. Is he going to be as hard line as the past leadership, or is there something going on within the NRA itself that will move things?

CONAN: Here's a tweet from Nicholas on Representative Cummings of Maryland said: I support strong gun control legislation, a ban on manufacture, possession of semiauto assault weapons.

Sandy in Louisville sent us an email: Our representative from Kentucky, Representative Yarmuth, said he's been silent too long over this issue and he will be silent no longer. It is about time.

We're talking about the shifting political ground maybe on gun control after President Obama's news conference earlier today and, of course, the terrible shootings in Newtown, Connecticut last week. Our guests are, of course, Political Junkie Ken Rudin and John Gramlich, staff writer for legal affairs at CQ Roll Call, Peter Overby, NPR's correspondent for Power, Money and Influence. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Bill is on the line with us from Liberty in Missouri.

BILL: Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

BILL: Good. Senator Blunt, the other day, said that he would not support any gun control legislation and that it would not pass in the Senate anyway.

CONAN: He said it would not pass in the Senate.

BILL: Right.

CONAN: That's an interesting calculation. Have you gone over the numbers, John Gramlich? We haven't seen the legislation, so we don't know yet. But...

GRAMLICH: Sure. At this point, I'm inclined to agree with the senator. I don't see the votes there to pass it at this stage. I mean, that could change. But the more time that goes by, the harder it is for people to sign on. Now, one thing that is interesting and that could have an effect is that Senator Feinstein of California, who's been the biggest proponent of gun control in the Senate, is going to be most likely the Senate Judiciary chairman next year. And from that position, she has a lot more visibility to push this issue.

CONAN: Ken, the president count votes as well as anybody else. He's got to know that he faces an uphill fight.

RUDIN: Well, he thinks - I mean, obviously, the horror of the action, of course, perhaps, gives him his side or this side more momentum. But, you know, if you listen to all the calls we've gotten, everything has been pretty predictable: the New Jersey call about Menendez and Lautenberg, well, yes. They are for gun control. The John Mica's and the Blunt in Missouri, they're against gun control. I'm very interested to hearing from these Democrats who have been on the fence, as our last caller said from Kentucky and whether this - what happened in Connecticut has moved them at all.

CONAN: And in that regard, Peter Overby, people are going to be listening very carefully - they're going to be listening very carefully to whatever the NRA says, but especially carefully on Friday.

OVERBY: That's right. And the NRA, you know, hasn't tipped its hand at all about what it's going to say, just, you know, is offering something.

CONAN: In the past, is it fair to say that any measure to control access to either ammunition, to the quantity of ammunition, to any weapon barring a machine gun has been opposed by the NRA?

OVERBY: I don't know that I can make a blanket statement. But that's the history in recent years, yes, to the point that the proponents of doing those things have essentially given up.

CONAN: And that any move that might even sound reasonable in the aftermath of some horrible incident like this, the beginning of a slippery slope if we give up on this, then the next thing will be much more severe.

OVERBY: That's right.

CONAN: Let's see if we get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Andy, Andy on the line with us from Iowa.

ANDY: Hi. Yeah, I actually live in Illinois, and my senator, Dick Durbin, this week said that we had the power and the responsibility to enact gun control. I know you're just saying that he's one of those probably predictable senators. But the other senator from my state, Mark Kirk, is a pretty moderate guy, and I'm interested to see which way he goes if a bill is proposed mostly because they both represent Chicago, which deals with gun violence on a daily basis. So...

CONAN: And that's going to be - Andy, thanks very much. You raise a really good point. And Ken mentioned earlier, John Gramlich, there's going to be a lot of people - one tends to say rather cynically if you've been in Washington a long time, they will put their fingers in the air and see which way the wind blows. This, though, is an issue that strikes at home in Newtown, Connecticut, in a way none of us have experienced before, even though we've seen the horrors of Columbine, even though we saw just in the past couple of years the Sikh temple; Tucson, Arizona; Aurora, Colorado litany that President Obama mentioned the other day.

GRAMLICH: Mm-hmm. Absolutely. Leader Pelosi today in her press conference just ticked off the list of shootings around the country in recent months, and she had representatives from those districts there. And Republicans also are saying - are cognizant of this and saying that something needs to be done, although they're being a little bit cagey about what specifically. Senator McCain has kept the door open to legislation. He won't say what kind of legislation. But he is - he's made clear that he thinks that this is a tragedy and that it needs to be looked at, perhaps, with a commission that evaluates exactly what happened and how it happened.

CONAN: And Mr. Sensenbrenner has also issued a comment. He will look. It's time to rethink, he said, and he would look at whatever the president puts forward. He noted that he was one of the sponsors of a legislation on the assault weapons ban back in the 1990s. John Sensenbrenner, the Republican from Wisconsin.

RUDIN: I'm listening to everybody talk right now, and I'm just getting so sad because we've, you know, something's got to be done. We've got to form a commission. This is getting out of hand. But when you see a casket of a 5-year-old child, I mean, I don't know if this is the one tragedy and horror that changes Congress' opinion. But when you see a coffin of a 5-year-old, there was nothing more devastating, I think, than that. And you could name all the Auroras and the Columbines and somehow this might be different. I don't know.

CONAN: Ken, thanks very much.

RUDIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Political Junkie Ken Rudin will return next Wednesday. I will not. I will be on vacation next week and be back the week after that. So...

RUDIN: It's going to be a great show, Neal.

CONAN: Best one ever. I'm sure. Our thanks as well to NPR's Peter Overby, our correspondent for Power, Money and Influence, and John Gramlich, staff writer for legal affairs on CQ Roll Call. Thank you, gentlemen, both for being with us today.

OVERBY: Thank you.

GRAMLICH: Thank you.

CONAN: We mentioned last week we're starting something new, a Political Junkie mailbag segment. We already read from your letters every Tuesday, but we'd like to start doing a special edition just for the Political Junkie. So if you've got questions, quips, comments, criticisms or clarifications for us, send us an email, talk@npr.org. Put Junkie mailbag in the subject line, if you would. Tomorrow, the new intelligence report that links national security and climate change. Join us for that conversation. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATIONfrom NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.