How Schumer, still in the bull’s-eye, intends to reframe the gun debate

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Schumer on the Senate floor. ()
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More often than not, when Senator Chuck Schumer has received feedback on his advocacy for gun control, it hasn't been good.

"I'll go to a street fair and inevitably two or three people will come over to me and say 'I don't like you, you're for gun control,'" he said in an appearance on New York 1 on Monday night. "No one will come over and pat me on the back and say, 'Thanks for working for gun control.' It's not that the majority of people aren't with you, they just don't make it as high a priority, because they feel relatively safe. Now, something might have changed."

Sensing an opening after the horrific shooting of 20 schoolchildren in Connecticut, Schumer is trying to change the terms of the debate, to activate the middle-of-the-road voters who, he believes, have supported gun control all along.

"We cannot just have both sides yelling at each other, accomplishing nothing," Schumer said on the Senate floor on Monday, in a speech he billed as a "new way forward that breaks through the gridlock."

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Schumer's idea on this, as on many things, is a reformulation of the Democratic argument as much as it is a substantive shift. Now, Schumer says, liberals must acknowledge the Second Amendment as an equal partner in the Bill of Rights, reassuring conservatives that some modest gun restrictions aren't a first step to purging the country of firearms.

"Those of us who are pro-gun control have to realize there are large parts of the country where guns are a way of life," he said.

And Schumer, who was an outspoken advocate of gun control when he represented a House district in Brooklyn and authored the Brady Bill, says he can relate to gun owners, recounting how he had been taught to shoot a .22 by an NRA-trained counselor at camp.

"I wasn't a bad shot," Schumer said. "I won a couple of those merit badges for marksmanship, sharp shooting."

He also recalled his trip pheasant hunting with Nebraska senator Ben Nelson a few years ago. 

"I really enjoyed the experience," he said.

Schumer said it was wrong for liberals to favor a broad interpretation of the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments and then argue the Second Amendment should be interpreted through the "pinhole" of militias. He also pointed out that the Supreme Court's decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which struck down some ambitious gun control laws in Washington, D.C, had further guaranteed that gun owners were in no danger from liberal elements.

"The Second Amendment is in the Constitution just as the others are, and deserves respect," he said. "But then our colleagues on the pro-gun side should admit another thing, no amendment is absolute."

Schumer's preferred example is the First Amendment, and the many restrictions placed on free speech, like the famous prohibition on yelling "fire" in a crowded theater, and laws against child pornography.

"I believe that you can be pro-gun, but also pro-gun safety, just like you can be in favor of free speech and against child pornography," he said.

Schumer has been more aggressive in pushing the issue after shootings in Connecticut than he was after the other recent tragedies, explaining on "Face the Nation" on Sunday that he thought the public would react differently to this one, given the particularly horrific nature of the mass murder of schoolchildren, and the cumulative effect of the shooting massacres that preceded it.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released this morning reported that more Americans were inclined to see the shooting in a Connecticut as part of a broader societal problem than the isolated act of a madman, a sharp reversal from public opinion after the mass shooting in Colorado this summer. And a couple of pro-gun Democrats have suggested that they're open to new regulations on guns, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mark Warner of Virginia.

Republicans have been mostly silent on the issue, declining to appear on non-Fox Sunday shows this week, but Schumer said he's not inclined to read too much into that.

"In the wake of this awful tragedy people may not want to speak their viewpoint, even if they haven't changed their viewpoint, if they're on the pro-gun side," he said on New York 1.

And he proudly added that, even after all these years, he's still a foil for the NRA.

"I still have my face put on the N.R.A. bulletin as public enemy number one," he said. "A couple of times they had a bull's-eye on my forehead. We've gotten a couple dozen in the mail where people put them up on the target and shoot."