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US arms control advocates must show they like guns

Monday - 4/8/2013, 1:50pm  ET

FILE - In this Saturday, Aug. 4, 2012 file photo provided by the White House, President Barack Obama shoots clay targets on the range at Camp David, Md. Lobbying for gun control in the United States sometimes means showing how much you like firearms. The White House released this photo of Obama in an effort to silence skeptics of his claim in an interview that he has actually shot a gun. (AP Photo/The White House, Pete Souza, File)

ALEXANDRA OLSON
Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) -- Lobbying for gun control in the United States often means proving how much you like firearms.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose state recently passed some of the strictest gun control measures in the country, often reminds people he is a hunter. Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who founded a gun control advocacy group after surviving a gunshot wound to the head, says she and her husband keep two guns in a safe at home. Vice President Joe Biden boasts that he owns two shotguns. And the White House recently released a photo of President Barack Obama skeet shooting at the Camp David presidential retreat, trying to silence skeptics of his claim in an interview that he has actually shot a gun.

The message is obvious: They, too, are a part of America's gun culture. In a country where at least a third of households have firearms, it's hard to impose stricter arms rules without support from gun owners. That means reassuring Americans that nobody is going to take away the guns they bought legally.

Gun rights groups scoffed at what they called clumsy and obvious attempts by Biden and Obama to ingratiate themselves with firearm owners even while trying to limit their rights.

"It's transparent, cynical and hollow and gun owners see right through it," said Lawrence Keane, senior vice president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an association that represents gun manufacturers.

But gun control proponents have pressed on with such efforts ahead of a crucial Senate vote on legislation backed by the Obama administration in response to the Dec. 14 shooting of 20 children and six educators at a Connecticut school.

A recent $12 million ad campaign, bankrolled by billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, urged moderate Republican and Democratic senators to support expanding federal background checks for gun sales, a system that currently applies only to federally licensed dealers. Advocates want to include gun show sales.

Far from criticizing guns, the ad shows a scruffy-faced man holding a shotgun in the back of a pickup truck. He argues that background checks don't infringe on the Second Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees the right of citizens to bear arms and is often cited by gun rights defenders.

"For me, guns are about hunting and protecting my family," the man says, as two children play on tire swings in the background. "I believe in the Second Amendment, and I'll fight to protect it. But with rights come responsibilities. That's why I support comprehensive background checks, so criminals and the dangerously mentally ill can't buy guns."

Broader background checks face an uphill battle in Congress, along with proposals for a ban on military-style assault rifles and limits on ammunition capacity. Many Republicans and some Democrats represent states where citizens have vocally expressed fears that their gun rights will be taken away in the wake of the Connecticut shooting.

Gun sales nationwide surged after the school attack as people rushed to buy weapons they feared would be banned. Some communities have voted to allow teachers to carry firearms in schools, arguing that guns make people safer. A handful of small towns have even issued ordinances requiring their residents arm themselves.

The powerful National Rifle Association, which spent at least $24 million during the last U.S. election cycle, has stoked those fears, suggesting that the White House's real intention to eventually to ban all firearms. "It's about banning your guns ... PERIOD!" NRA leader Wayne LaPierre wrote in January email to the group's 4 million members.

But gun control advocates see evidence that, since the Connecticut shooting, many firearms owners are more open to stricter laws than the NRA contends.

Recent polling shows that more than 80 percent of Americans support extending federal background checks to include gun show sales and private purchases. Colorado, a state with a strong frontier tradition of gun ownership, passed legislation last month that expanded background checks to apply to personal and online sales and limited magazine capacity to 15 bullets. Connecticut followed suit with an even stronger bill to ban more than 100 previously legal weapons. In Maryland, legislators have approved a measure that, among other things, requires people who buy a handgun to submit fingerprints to state police.

Obama and others are touting such efforts as signs that the country can bridge one of its deepest cultural divides: The split between mostly rural Americans who cherish guns for hunting and self-defense and urban citizens who equate them with gang violence, drive-by shootings and young lives lost.

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