WASHINGTON - For members of Congress from big cities, the West Coast and the Northeast, gun control has jumped to the top of the agenda. For those elected in red-state America, the issue is regarded very differently.
That could cause Democrats big political problems, complicating the quest for new laws in Congress and perhaps threatening Democrats in the 2014 congressional elections.
Democrats currently will have to defend 21 of the 35 Senate seats that are up next year. Roughly half, as well as dozens of seats in the House of Representatives, are in places were gun rights are cherished and popular. Looking like the party that's eager to ban assault-style weapons might very well cost the Democrats control of the Senate, where Republicans need a net gain of six seats for a majority.
"Gun control is going to be a loser in a number of states where Democrats need to pick up seats," said Jennifer Duffy, Senate election analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
While there appears to be growing agreement to expand background checks and perhaps take other steps in the wake of the December shootings in Newtown, Conn., restricting gun use and sales is another matter.
The question is dividing the party into two camps.
One is the sizable band, led by President Barack Obama and based largely in liberal-leaning states or big cities, that wants tough action quickly. Leading the congressional charge are Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., who are aggressively pushing to ban the sale and manufacture of dozens of semi-automatic assault weapons and large-capacity magazines.
Supporters are convinced that they can get enough Democrats to win. "Public opinion is really shifting on this," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
A CNN/ORC poll taken in mid-January found that 56 percent supported an assault weapons ban, the same percentage logged in August. An NBC-Wall Street Journal survey in mid-January found little change in general attitudes: Fifty-six percent want more-strict laws, compared with 52 percent two years ago.
The other Democratic group represents more conservative states, where gun control is still widely viewed with suspicion.
In Alaska, for instance, Sen. Mark Begich faces a highly competitive re-election race.
"The more pro-gun he is, the better it is for him," said Ivan Moore, an Anchorage-based nonpartisan political strategist. "This is a very heavy pro-gun state."
It's likely that the Senate will vote later this year on a wide array of proposals, probably in early summer. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has been a gun rights supporter, and he well understands the risk of looking too pro-gun control.
During his hard-fought 2010 re-election campaign, he was joined by the National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierre to open a shooting park in Nevada. The NRA contributed to Reid's 2010 campaign but didn't endorse him, citing his votes for two Obama-appointed Supreme Court justices.
Reid has said he doubts that an assault weapons ban could pass in Congress, but he has also signaled that he won't stand in the way of votes on politically difficult proposals.
"We're going to have votes on all kinds of issues dealing with guns. And I think everyone would be well advised to read the legislation before they determine how they're going to vote for it," he said this week.
The role that guns will play in 2014 results remains uncertain, since the issue will share the media spotlight with a host of other concerns, notably the economy. And when it comes to emotional issues, "Immigration replaces guns," said Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. <
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