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Obama, Dems misfire on guns

| Saturday, May 11, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

BELLE VERNON, Pa.

The owner of a small gun shop here sits on a wooden stool behind a glass-topped counter filled with handguns. The only thing folks talk about when they come into this store is what Washington will do next to attack gun owners, says the man, dressed in a crisp white shirt, dark blue pants and a ballcap from a local paint store.

“The story that is not being told is how afraid folks really are,” he says, refusing to have his name published. He has lived through the turbulent '60s and '70s and served in Vietnam, he says, but none of that compares to the fear he sees in today's customers.

“When you have not one, not two, but dozens of women well over 70 come in here to buy a gun, something is going wrong out there,” he says. “It's not just little old white women — it's young people, white and black, affluent and struggling, who are worrying about the (government's) overreach and the need to protect themselves.”

As if on cue, a middle-aged black man walks in and is greeted with a hearty handshake. The man says he came in to pick up a gun he ordered the week before.

The 65-year-old shopkeeper says everyone who walks through his door is concerned that the latest push for stricter gun laws will return to the congressional agenda, perhaps within weeks, despite his belief that Americans do not support the legislation as much as the Obama administration claims they do.

His newest customer nods in agreement.

President Obama made gun control a priority after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. After months of speeches that demonized the National Rifle Association, the gun bill failed in the U.S. Senate last month.

Obama called that defeat “a pretty shameful day for Washington.” Yet the overwhelming public outrage that he anticipated simply never materialized.

A poll released by The Washington Post and the Pew Research Center one week later showed only 47 percent of respondents were “disappointed” that the Senate failed to advance a bill to expand background checks to gun shows and online sales.

Part of the problem is how the bill was pushed by Obama and his political arm, Organizing for America: People who own guns were condemned in shrill, strident terms that puzzled people who own guns, and even those who don't.

One of the bill's sponsors, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., insists he hasn't given up; he does near-daily cable news interviews, hoping to bring a gun bill back up for a vote.

And Michael Bloomberg, New York's billionaire mayor, is dumping money into Pennsylvania for a television ad pressing folks to “demand” that their legislators support such a bill.

Yet, last week, when Bloomberg's Mayors Against Guns organization held a rally in Beaver County, fewer than 20 people attended; most were organizers of the event.

It's not unusual for members of Congress to misread public opinion, either from personal bias or a simple cultural lag. Obama and the Senate's majority Democrats clearly did on this issue, for both of those reasons.

Among history's more spectacular examples of this phenomenon was the repeal of Prohibition, according to historian David Pietrusza.

“The ‘driest' Congress ever was elected very late in the game, in 1928,” he recalled, “but within two years, the tide had turned dramatically … by November 1932, 98 ‘dry' House members and seven ‘dry' senators met defeat.”

Christopher Kelley, a Miami University of Ohio political scientist, theorized that it is in Republicans' interest to keep the gun issue alive for its potential value as a wedge issue in 2014 “and maybe even 2016.”

The gun shop's door opens to another customer, filling the air with the blare of an oncoming freight train's sequenced horn — long, long, short, long blasts, warning motorists of a train crossing Belle Vernon's Main Street, a few blocks away.

Customers come and go from different walks of life, different ages, different genders, different ethnicities — a virtual social melting pot passing through one small gun shop, all echoing the same concern: fear that their way of life will be under attack again, and soon.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (412-320-7879 or szito@tribweb.com).

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