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IRS scandal could further chill chances of gun control in Senate

New Gun Laws
Congress may have a harder time passing background checks for gun purchases in light of the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups.

The Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups may have chilled the chances of Congress passing stricter gun laws because it further undermined the public's trust in government to protect confidential personal information.

The Obama administration and gun-control advocates are pushing the Senate to re-introduce bipartisan legislation that would expand the kinds of gun purchases subject to federal criminal background checks after similar legislation failed earlier this year. But opponents of the law claimed that giving the government information about gun owners could lead to abuses.

"I think the scandals that cast doubt on our ability to trust the administration make everything harder to do," said Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.

Supporters of expanded background checks argued that the information the government collects would never be misused or made public. That argument grew less credible, however, following revelations since that April vote that the IRS targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status and, in some cases, leaked confidential information to people outside the tax agency, including at least one media outlet.

"We cannot trust the government to collect data and then safeguard us against inappropriate use or illegal release of that data," is how one political operative who has relationships with gun rights activists described their thinking.

Senate Democrats pushing for another vote dismiss any connection between the IRS and gun control, saying they'll spend July discussing the matter in preparation for a possible autumn vote.

Toomey, with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., crafted a compromise measure on background checks that was ultimately defeated by Senate Republicans and four Democrats. He said the IRS scandal could hardened distrust of government and make it more difficult for gun-control proponents to convince opposing lawmakers to switch sides and support it.

President Obama and Democratic congressional leaders vowed tighten gun regulations in the aftermath of a mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school that left more than two dozen dead, including 20 children. Republicans said they were open to reviewing gun control legislation following the December killings, but were more circumspect, ultimately arguing that the bill that came up in the Senate would not have prevented the Connecticut shooting.

Public opinion polls consistently show broad public support for expanded background checks for gun buyers, even among self-identified Republicans and gun owners. And two recent Quinnipiac University polls, one taken in Florida and the other in Ohio, confirm those findings. But the Second Amendment remains a potent issue within the Republican base, and the National Rifle Association has proven effective at defeating virtually all new gun-control proposals.

In fact, the NRA's ranks -- and coffers -- have swelled since Obama started pushing gun control, some of which the president implemented unilaterally through executive action. For gun-rights activists and staunch Second Amendment advocates a general distrust of government is already a central tenet of their opposition to new gun laws. For them, the IRS controversy is akin to pouring gasoline on a simmering fire.

With Obama set for a second attempt at imposing new gun rules, the parents of the children killed in Newtown visited Capitol Hill last month to push Congress to reconsider and beef up gun-control laws. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid vowed to continue the fight for new restrictions.

But the Nevada Democrat also suggested he isn't interested in a bill to expand background checks that does not include the kind of data collection that kept Republicans -- and some Democrats -- from supporting the legislation in April. Sen. Christopher Murphy, however, was optimistic that gun control advocates would eventually twist enough arms to win the 60 votes needed to advance a bill.

The Connecticut Democrat plans to spend July shaping a new bill that could pass the Senate with hopes of bringing it up for a vote after the August recess. Murphy clearly doesn't think too much of the notion that IRS malfeasance could, or should, stand in the way of the Senate approving expanded background checks for gun purchases.

"There is momentum behind bringing the gun bill back on the floor. I am sure that supporters of the NRA are going to grasp at whatever straws they can find to try to stop this momentum," he said. "But the reality is, there are a half dozen senators that are interested in trying to move some version of the original bill back to the floor."

But flipping votes will be a challenge.

Two senators who voted against the Manchin-Toomey in April, Democrat Mark Pryor, of Arkansas, and Republican Kelly Ayotte, of New Hampshire, don't sound like they're ready to switch votes, in part because of the heightened distrust of government. The IRS revelations only bolstered opposition to a bill by demonstrating that the government could misuse personal information -- including information collected from background checks.

"In light of the IRS," Ayotte said, "people are even more skeptical and want greater scrutiny for government record keeping."