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Gun industry leaders, allies defy NRA on checks
First Published Mar 06 2013 09:09 am • Last Updated Mar 06 2013 12:28 pm

Some of the gun lobby’s strongest allies are breaking with the National Rifle Association to support proposals that would expand background checks for private firearm sales.

In behind-the-scenes talks with congressional staff members and others, gun makers, dealers and other Second Amendment advocates have offered support for more instant criminal background checks, buoying the hopes of gun control advocates, including President Barack Obama, who put a top priority on extending criminal checks to private sales.

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The trade group for the nation’s leading firearm manufacturers said it will not actively oppose the expansion of background checks, which are designed to prevent guns from reaching criminals or the seriously mentally ill.

"That’s more the NRA’s issue," Steve Sanetti, president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), said in an interview. "From the commercial side, we’re already there, and we’ve been there, and we were the ones that have been the strongest proponents of an effective, complete background check."

Sensing an opportunity, a group of big-city mayors wrote to major gun manufacturers Monday warning that their governments may begin using economic leverage to win support for increased regulation, including an extension of background checks. The mayors of Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and other large cities spend millions on firearms and ammunition each year for their police departments.

"Our residents want to ensure that the tax dollars that are being used to purchase guns for our police departments are going to manufacturers that share our values and support our strategies," Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who leads the National Conference of Democratic Mayors, wrote in a letter to Glock and the NSSF.

The recipients did not comment on Tuesday.

The effort to drive a rare wedge between the gun industry and the NRA intensified ahead of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday on major pieces of the Democrats’ gun-control program. The plan includes proposals for an assault weapons ban, new restrictions on gun trafficking, school safety and criminal background checks.

Gun manufacturers have been wary of crossing the NRA, in part because of the bruising experience of Smith & Wesson more than a decade ago. During the Clinton administration, the firearm maker privately negotiated gun safety issues. Gun rights groups swiftly punished Smith & Wesson, urging dealers not to carry the company’s products and creating serious financial trouble.

Representatives from some gun makers are discussing possible legal changes in confidential talks with congressional staff members, according to people familiar with the talks who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the conversations.


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Gun store owners and retail dealers, for the most part, have been more vocal in supporting an expansion of background checks after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December. Because commercial establishments are already required to perform them, an expanded background check requirement probably would increase traffic and business for licensed dealers.

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., a hunter and Vietnam veteran leading a gun task force in the House, said that every dealer he talks to lately expresses support for more background checks. He maintains that the NRA no longer represents the views of most gun owners.

In a statement Monday, NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said that expanding background checks is "a wrongheaded approach."

He said "the NRA is supportive of background checks on retail sales to ensure criminals and the mentally ill with violent tendencies do not have access to firearms." "Unfortunately," he added, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System "is currently incomplete and has inaccurate data. Rather than focusing on improving the quality of information contained in NICS, gun control proponents are advocating a significant expansion of a system that has gaping inadequacies."

Late last month, in a speech in Salt Lake City, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre blasted the background-check proposal, saying it is "aimed at one thing: registering your guns. And when another tragic opportunity presents itself, that registry will be used to confiscate your guns."

LaPierre openly supported expanded background checks a decade ago.

Not all of the NRA’s traditional allies share this sense of alarm. For example, the head of the pro-gun Second Amendment Foundation tentatively backed a proposed compromise bill in Washington state last month that would expand background checks while limiting state firearms record-keeping.

In addition, the head of the nation’s largest police union, which was allied with the NRA in a major legislative battle in the past, has joined the movement for expanded background checks.

James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, said in an interview that he now supports extending checks to gun shows and other venues where they are not required.

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