Republicans in Congress are reaffirming their commitment to gun rights in the midst of cutting criticism from the Left that they are indirectly responsible for the Las Vegas massacre that left 59 dead.
Liberals are hammering Republicans for opposing stricter gun regulations after the deadliest shooting rampage in U.S. history, accusing them of ignoring popular opinion for fear of reprisal from the National Rifle Association.
Republicans counter that Democrats are playing politics with a national tragedy. But in interviews, they speculated that the Left fundamentally misunderstands their reverence for the Second Amendment. It's a position that they share with, and is driven by, their most active voters, often promoted by the NRA. And that grassroots force includes many who've shifted right over the years because of the Democratic Party's left turn on cultural issues — gun rights chief among them.
"I vote my conscience and people support me because they like the way I represent my district. The whole underlying assumption [Democrats] are making is false," Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., said in an interview with the Washington Examiner.
Hudson has worked in Republican politics as a political operative, Capitol Hill aide, and now a congressman. Steeped in the issues and attitudes that animate the conservative base, he said the NRA is effective because its agenda enjoys such broad support to begin with, not because of a $1,000 donation out of the $3 million he raised during the 2016 election cycle.
"They happen to share my values of protecting a constitutional right, namely the Second Amendment, and so where I can work with them I will," Hudson said. "You have to question the motives of people who rush out and hold press conferences and call for gun restrictions that would have had no impact on the Las Vegas shooting while people are still fighting for their lives."
Stephen Paddock murdered 59 people in Las Vegas on Sunday, mowing down attendees of an open-air country music concert from a high-rise hotel room using several weapons that appeared to be retrofitted to operate as fully automatic weapons.
Democrats, as they have after other recent mass shootings, moved quickly to pressure Republicans to consider gun control legislation. On Wednesday, House Democrats gathered on the west steps of the Capitol to push the issue.
Senate Democrats still chafing from Republican opposition to restricting Americans' access to firearms after the Sandy Hook shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school left 26 dead, including 20 children, are also speaking out.
"To my colleagues," Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said on Twitter, "your cowardice to act cannot be whitewashed by thoughts and prayers. None of this ends unless we do something to stop it."
Voting patterns over the past decade suggest there is more to the Republicans' opposition to further gun restrictions than fear of, as Democrats often refer to it, the "gun lobby." The last time the Democratic Party won majorities and flipped control of the House and Senate, in 2006, in addition to winning more seats in 2008 and 2012, it did so on the strength of candidates who fit the culturally conservative moors of their states and districts.
These were pro-gun Democrats who pledged not to weaken the Second Amendment. As the party moved back to the aggressive pro-gun-control position it held throughout the 1990s, the voters that helped elect and sustain the new Democratic voters drifted toward the Republicans. Those that weren't chased out of Congress in the GOP waves of 2010 and 2014 often joined Republicans in opposing tighter gun control, worrying about reprisals at home.
Some Democrats recognize that the gun issue continues to be a major hurdle for their party in its bid win more seats in Congress. For instance, T.J. Rooney, the former Democratic chairman of Pennsylvania, said there are House districts in his state his party could win if Democrats weren't identified as opposed to gun rights.
"I think there is a chance to clean up some common-sense issues as a result of Las Vegas. But there remains no hard evidence of any appetite for changes that really matter and would save lives," Rooney said, referring to voters in Pennsylvania districts held by Republican Reps. Charlie Dent, Ryan Costello, Patrick Meehan, and Brian Fitzpatrick.
Republican leaders, and President Trump, have expressed anguish about the mass murders. Some of their own were targeted for assassination in June by a liberal extremist who shot House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., and other Republicans practicing for a charity baseball game. Scalise returned to work last week.
But as a group, and backed by the unwavering support of grassroots conservatives, they have remained strong protectors of gun rights. Scalise said in an interview with Fox News that his experience has only "fortified" his support for a robust Second Amendment. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., who is running for re-election in 2018, said in an interview that his pro-gun views are heartfelt and homegrown, not the result of special interest arm twisting.
"The people of Wyoming understand, respect and love the Constitution. And the bill of rights, which is the first 10 amendments, has to do with what the government can't take away from us, it's about our individual rights," said Barrasso, the Republican Policy Committee chairman. "And that is unrelated completely to some lobbyist or some contributor. It is who we as a people."