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On gun control, Obama picks a fight

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A poll conducted by Republican Frank Luntz last year for Mayors Against Illegal Guns showed that 74 percent of National Rifle Association members support mandatory background checks for all gun purchases – a measure the NRA steadfastly opposes. A Pew Research Center survey this week shows that two-thirds of Americans favor a federal database to track gun sales and 80 percent favor measures to prevent people with mental illness from acquiring guns.

On the eve of the administration’s announcement, New York state adopted the nation’s broadest and strictest package of gun control laws, including versions of the assault-weapons ban and mandatory background checks. Big city mayors such as Michael Bloomberg of New York, Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, and Thomas Menino of Boston are vocal supporters of tighter gun-control laws.

This comes after a decade when the political currents flowed in the other direction – notably, the 2004 lapsing of the federal assault-weapons ban and a 2005 law protecting gun manufacturers from the kind of punitive lawsuits that have hit the tobacco industry.

In a landmark ruling in 2008, the Supreme Court established an individual’s right to bear arms separate from a militia, overturning a ban on handguns in Washington, DC. Lawsuits in federal courts in Maryland and Illinois have rejected limitations on the right to carry a concealed weapon in public, almost ensuring that this issue will eventually reach the Supreme Court.

Gun rights advocates and their allies in Congress quickly lined up against the Obama proposals, and it is hard at this point to see where the votes would emerge to pass legislation in either the House or the Senate. But the NRA’s leverage may be overrated. According to the Sunlight Foundation, which tracks political spending, less than 1 percent of the campaign funds spent by the NRA on last year's general election achieved the desired result.

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