Senate Democrats used family members of gun violence victims Thursday to provide emotional impetus to a sweeping gun control proposal that is certain to cause major political headaches within their own party, including for the Senate majority leader.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., announced legislation to eliminate more than 150 types of guns as well as high-capacity gun clips, telling an audience of law enforcement, local government officials and survivors, "The purpose is to dry up the supply of these weapons over time."
Family members of the Virginia Tech shooting victims and other deadly encounters approached the microphone one by one to plead with lawmakers to back the bill.
"I thought for sure after Virginia Tech we would get something done," said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., a longtime gun control advocate whose son was injured and husband killed in the 1993 Long Island Rail Road shooting. "But something happened in Newtown. People of America said, how could this happen? How could this happen to our children?"
The Senate's second- and third-ranking Democrats spoke at the event and are co-sponsors of the bill, but noticeably absent was Majority Leader Harry Reid, who hails from Nevada, one of the nation's most pro-gun states.
Reid, a Democrat, has struggled to dodge the gun control debate that has dominated Congress since the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shootings last month.
With Thursday's much-publicized introduction of the bill, however, Reid can't duck the issue any longer.
"He is very much in a tough spot," said Ted Jelen, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "And not necessarily for himself but for other Democrats facing re-election who he might want to provide political coverage."
Reid won't face re-election for another four years, if he decides to run. But his slim Senate majority could easily slip away in 2014, when 21 seats are up for re-election. Nearly half of those are considered by political analysts to be vulnerable to a GOP takeover.
The Republican-dominated House is unlikely to take up a gun ban bill, but Senate passage has the potential to hurt gun-state senators like Al Franken of Minnesota, who narrowly won his first term, Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, among others.
Reid has been vague when asked about his level of support Feinstein's proposal, which mirrors one put forward by President Obama last week.
Reid said he wants a gun bill with "some stuff in there that's really important," but he added, "It may not be everything that everyone wants."
Gun legislation, Reid said, must first churn through the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who has a shooting range in his backyard.
If Reid puts a gun ban on the Senate floor, he said he'll open it up to amendments. Such a move would provide opponents the opportunity to substantially weaken the legislation, political experts note. It's a strategy that could provide a political escape hatch for Reid and his vulnerable fellow Democrats.
"So if these Democrats propose amendments and they are ultimately defeated, they can go back home and say, 'I did X, Y and Z to protect people's Second Amendment rights,' " Jelen said.