In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre, polls show that a solid majority of U.S. citizens want Congress to pass a new ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. If the Senate were to hold an up-or-down vote in the new session, Dianne Feinstein's new ban on assault weapons coupled with Frank Lautenberg's new ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines would pass. If there could be a clean up or down vote – a very big if – according to my calculations it could pass with a simple majority of 53 votes. But that isn’t saying a whole lot.
Dick Durbin (D-IL), the Senate Majority Whip, would most likely start with a base of 36 dependably liberal Democrats like Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Patty Murray, (D-WA) and Al Franken (D-MN). Among these are the Democrats who voted for the original Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB I) in 1994 and the 2004 attempt at re-authorization, they have always supported such legislation, there is no doubt that they will support it this time around.
Independent Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Angus King (I-ME), though they represent rural states where hunting is a common pastime, will almost certainly vote for new restrictions on assault weapons and high-capacity magazine clips because their electorates are also particularly socially liberal, and Newtown, Connecticut isn’t too far away. That’s 38 votes. The last remaining moderate Republicans, Susan Collins (R-ME) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), would probable make 40 dependable “aye” votes.
However, Sandy Hook has changed everything. This horrific mass murder of innocent children and teachers has spurred a number of solidly pro-gun Democrats to wake up and smell the coffee. In this group I would include Democrats like Mark Warner (D-VA), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Bob Casey (D-PA), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), and Claire McCaskill (D-MO). I would even include Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) – who voted against the Federal Assault Weapons Ban in 1994, as the man who decides what bills the Senate votes on, has largely resisted the advance of gun control legislation (there is speculation amongst gun control advocates that Reid downplayed gun control measures as Majority Leader out of concern for his own political survival in gun-friendly Nevada). I would consider that 46 all-but-declared “ayes” for a new ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazine clips. That’s still 4 votes short.
Though they haven’t yet declared one way or another, it looks like there might be roughly 6 additional “aye” votes, culturally conservative Democrats and Republicans who have expressed openness to debating and voting upon an assault weapons ban, but who have yet to explicitly commit to voting one way or another. This faction might be particularly swayed by the actions of West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, given an A-rating by the NRA, who is perhaps most famous for his campaign ad in which he appears shooting a copy of the cap-and-trade bill. Appearing on MSNBC’s Morning Joe after the Newtown murders, Manchin declared: “I’m a proud outdoors-man and huntsman, like many Americans, and I like shooting, but this doesn’t make sense. . . I don’t know anyone in the sporting and hunting arena who goes out with an assault rifle; I don’t know anyone who needs 30 rounds in the clip to go hunting.”
Manchin is undoubtedly going to be the bellwether as to whether the Senate can pass AWB II, and I would also include in this group newly-elected Senators Joe Donnelly (D-IN) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), pro-gun Democrats newly elected in 2012, and endangered red state Democrats up for re-election in 2014 like Tim Johnson (D-SD) (but who voted for the AWB in the past). At this time, it looks like only two additional Republican votes are truly up for grabs; John McCain (R-AZ) and Rob Portman (R-OH), who are generally very conservative but also fairly decent human beings who have expressed sincere interest in working to reduce gun violence. Portman is a likely "aye"; in 2004, both Ohio Republicans George Voinovich and Mike DeWine supported the AWB I's re-authorization. Right now, it seems that there are 6 such swing votes leaning towards "aye."At least 4 of them are necessary for the Senate to pass such a bill with a bare majority of 50 Senators plus Vice President Biden casting the tie-breaking vote. If all 6 of these swing voters ends up supporting AWB II – it might be fair to say that these 6 could dictate what goes in and what stays out of the bill, it could be theirs to write. My conservative estimate is that there might be a grand total of only 51 to 53 Senators voting in favor of a new ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.At this vantage point, it looks like this is going to be a squeaker. Democrats are only going to have a 55-45 majority in the Senate, and they can’t count on every vote. There are a number of Southern Democrats, facing brutal re-election races in 2014, who might vote against the final bill. In this category I would count Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Mark Pryor (D-AR), and Kay Hagan (D-NC). Landrieu voted against the reauthorization of AWB I in 2004, but she has not signaled that she is definitely opposed to it this time. Pryor voted for the 2004 re-authorization, but you never know how tides may change as he ponders re-election in increasingly redder Arkansas. Hagan has not come out with a firm public statement on the bill at all. I would also look to the Democratic Senators from Montana, Max Baucus and Jon Tester. Baucus voted for the original law in 1994 but flipped his vote on the 2004 re-authorization. Tester has spent his entire political career showcasing his support for Montana sportsmen, and so far he has only made statements critical of the AWB – though that might change post-Sandy Hook. Alaska Senator Mark Begich is also in a similar bind, facing a tough re-election campaign in a state where hunting is a mainstay of life in the Last Frontier. I don’t see these 6 Democrats voting for a new Assault Weapons Ban, but things might change. Until they come out with a firm public statement to the contrary, I would count them as Democratic swing votes leaning towards "nay."
However, there is also room for some surprise Republican “ayes”; after all, the Newtown Massacre was simply so horrific a display of what unspeakable crimes a person can commit with a .223 Bushmaster that it has spurred some rethinking in even the most unlikeliest of places. Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison has since come out on TV as supporting a new ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazine clips (though she is retiring at the end of the year, her vote will not count). Daniel Coats (R-IN), an extremely conservative Senator on just about everything, voted for the original AWB in 1994. Nowadays, it is assumed that a Republican has to have been against any and every form of gun control in order to win the party nomination, so they have to be strong-willed enough to do a 180-degree volte-face. I can imagine such a dramatic turn-around from Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), maybe incoming Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ). Coming from anyone else, an “aye” vote would evince a serious change of conscience. You never know.
According to my count, there are at least 33 Republican Senators who will not under any circumstances flinch on this issue, mostly from the former Confederacy and the Great Plains. There are even some Republicans from fairly competitive seats like Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania and Ron Johnson in Wisconsin who simply don't give a crap about what their constituents think on about gun violence (see, e.g., Johnson claiming that the 2nd Amendment protects a constitutional right to high-capacity magazines on Fox News Sunday just weeks before the Oak Creek Massacre in his home state). I don’t envision a scenario in which Mitch McConnell (R-Smith & Wesson) doesn’t at least try to mount a filibuster, and the only question is if he can rustle up 40 votes to block cloture. I think he can, but he would need at least 3 of the conservative pro-gun Democrats to sustain it.
I think that this is going to come down to a cloture vote, and it will all depend on whether Reid can clamp down on Landrieu, Pryor, Hagan, Baucus, Tester, and Begich from siding with the GOP on a cloture vote, and also whether McConnell can do the same with McCain, Portman, Coats, Ayotte, Murkowski, and Alexander. At this point in time, if a new Assault Weapons Ban can break a filibuster, it will be a squeaker. If it gets through that hurdle, perhaps 53 to 55 Senators will vote for a new ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazine clips.
After that, it goes to the House. Whether Speaker Boehner (R-Remington) even allows a vote is doubtful.