Gun control is one of the few bipartisan policy fights in Washington: Several prominent Democrats, and quite a few backbenchers, have long opposed any new gun regulation, joining most Republican officeholders, while the nation's most prominent gun control advocate, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), was first elected on the GOP ticket. The National Rifle Association (NRA) and its allies clearly have the upper hand and better organization in the fight, but for those wondering if the massacre of 20 first graders in Newtown, Conn., changed the debate, the answer is a resounding "maybe."
Since the shocking mass murders on Dec. 14, GOP lawmakers have largely waved off the issue of gun regulation, focusing instead on the issue of mental illness. And the NRA has remained notably silent, refusing all interview requests, posting nothing on its Twitter feed, and even disabling its Facebook page. (Though "no one expects silence from the NRA once President Obama or members of Congress make any move to change the laws," notes Jennifer Liberto at CNNMoney.) The polls have shifted since the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings — 54 percent of respondents in a new ABC News/Washington Post poll favor stricter gun control laws, a five-year high; 59 percent back a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips — and several big names in "pro-gun" politics, most of them Democrats, have stepped forward to say they've changed their minds. Here, five of them, and what they have to say:
1. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)
Manchin, endorsed by the NRA in both of his Senate campaigns, rather famously cut an ad in his 2010 race showing him shooting a proposed cap-and-trade environmental bill with a rifle. On Monday, he was the first NRA-backed lawmaker to say everything is different now. "We've never been in these waters before — we've had horrific crimes throughout our country, but never have we seen so many of our babies put in harm's way and their life taken from them and the grief," he told CNBC. "That's changed me, and it's changed most Americans I would think." On CNN, Manchin added, "I'm committed to bringing the dialogue that would bring a total change, and I mean a total change." Earlier in the day, on MSNBC's Morning Joe, Manchin said he didn't know any fellow hunters who used assault rifles. "We've got to sit down. I ask all my friends at NRA — and I'm a proud NRA member and always have been — we need to sit down and move this dialogue to a sensible, reasonable approach to fixing it," he said. "Never before have we seen our babies slaughtered.... This has changed where we go from here."
2. Joe Scarborough
The lone Republican on this list (Scarborough represented Florida in Congress from 1995 to 2001), Morning Joe's eponymous host kicked off his show Monday with an emotional 10-minute monologue disavowing his earlier stance on gun control. "I am a conservative Republican who received the NRA's highest ratings over four terms in Congress," he said, but when I heard of the shooting I realized "the ideologies of my past career were no longer relevant to the future that I want for my children." The Second Amendment, he added, "does not guarantee gun manufacturers the absolute right to sell military-styled, high-caliber, semi-automatic combat assault rifles with high-capacity magazines to whoever the hell they want.... Politicians can no longer be allowed to defend the status quo. They must instead be forced to protect our children."
3. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.)
Warner, who represents the NRA's home state of Virginia, said Monday that he now joins "with the president and reasonable folks in both parties and the overwhelming majority of Americans who are gun owners who believe that we've got to put stricter rules on the books," he told local TV station WBBT. "I believe every American has Second Amendment rights. The ability to hunt is part of our culture. I have an NRA rating of an 'A,' but enough is enough."
4. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)
Unlike Warner and Manchin, Reid has been in the Senate for a long time, and he's earned his NRA support. He voted against the expired 10-year ban on assault weapons in 1993, voted against extending the ban in 2004, and has balked at tying other mass shootings to new gun control laws — after the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, he warned against a "rush to judgment," and after this past summer's Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting, he said there was not time to debate firearm laws in the Senate. On Monday, he said the time has come. "In the coming days and weeks, we will engage in a meaningful conversation and thoughtful debate about how to change laws and culture that allow this violence to continue to grow," Reid said on the Senate floor. "We have no greater responsibility than keeping our most vulnerable and most precious resource, our children, safe. And every idea should be on the table as we discuss how best to do just that."
5. Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.)
Yarmuth, a moderate Bluegrass State Democrat, hasn't been a big opponent of gun regulation, but he hasn't been a proponent either. That changed on Monday. "I agree that Americans have the right to defend themselves and their property," he said in a statement. "I believe even more fiercely that I have the right, and every child has the right, to be safe from guns." Growing up, he said, "I thought guns were the things that protected us from the bad guys — the outlaws, the Nazis, the Red Menace, and the gangsters. Now I know, through painful history, that guns are much more likely to be used by the bad guys or the mentally unstable against the rest of us." In Congress, "I have been largely silent on the issue of gun violence over the past six years, and I am now as sorry for that as I am for what happened to the families who lost so much in this most recent, but sadly not isolated, tragedy."