WASHINGTON (AP) — Leading advocates for both sides in the national debate over guns urged voters on Sunday to make their opinion known to lawmakers ahead of critical votes next month in Congress that will determine whether gun rights groups can again thwart efforts to tighten firearms regulations even after the Connecticut school massacre.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Wayne LaPierre, the CEO and executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, an influential gun rights lobbying group, claimed their opposing views on guns have the support of the overwhelming majority of Americans.
Both sides see the next two weeks as critical to the debate, when lawmakers head home to hear from constituents ahead of next month's anticipated Senate vote on gun control legislation drafted in response to the December elementary school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, that left 20 children and six educators dead.
Bloomberg, a former Republican-turned-independent, has just sunk $12 million for Mayors Against Illegal Guns to run television ads and phone banks in 13 states urging voters to tell their senators to pass legislation requiring universal background checks for gun buyers.
"We demanded a plan and then we demanded a vote. We've got the plan, we're going to get the vote. And now it's incumbent on us to make our voices heard," Bloomberg said in an interview on NBC television's "Meet the Press."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday that legislation would likely be debated in his chamber next month that will include expanded federal background checks, tougher laws and stiffer sentences for gun trafficking and increased school safety grants.
Reid dropped aban on assault-style weapons from the bill, fearing it would sink the broader bill. But Reid has said that he would allow the ban to be voted on separately as an amendment to the bill. President Barack Obama called for a vote on the assault weapons ban in his radio and Internet address Saturday.
Still, the amendment banning assault weapons Is unlikely to be passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate where it takes 60 votes to advance measures to a final vote. About a dozen centrist Democratic senators from rural, Republican-leaning states are wary about supporting such restrictions. The legislation expanding background checks has better prospects in the Senate, but faces stiff opposition in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Recalling the horrific shooting three months ago at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Bloomberg said it would be a great tragedy if Congress, through inaction, lost the moment to make the country safer from gun violence. Bloomberg said that 90 percent of Americans and 80 percent of National Rifle Association members support universal background checks for gun purchases.
"I don't think there's ever been an issue where the public has spoken so clearly, where Congress hasn't eventually understood and done the right thing," Bloomberg said.
But the NRA's LaPierre counters that universal background checks are "a dishonest premise" because mental health records are exempt from databases and criminals won't submit to the checks. Background checks, he said, are a "speed bump" in the system that "slows down the law-abiding and does nothing for anybody else."
"The shooters in Tucson, in Aurora, in Newtown, they're not going to be checked. They're unrecognizable," LaPierre said. He was referring to the 2011 shooting in a Tucson shopping center that killed six and wounded 13, including former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who is now an outspoken gun control advocate, and the July assault in a suburban Denver movie theater that killed 12 and injured 70. In both instances, as well as in the Newtown killings, the alleged shooters used military-style assault rifles with high-capacity ammunition magazines.
LaPierre, who also appeared on "Meet the Press," slammed the billionaire Bloomberg for the ad buy.
"He's going to find out this is a country of the people, by the people, and for the people. And he can't spend enough of his $27 billion to try to impose his will on the American public," LaPierre said, adding, "He can't buy America."
"Millions of people" from across the country are sending the NRA "$5, $10, $15, $20 checks, saying stand up to this guy," LaPierre said, referring to Bloomberg.
LaPierre said the NRA supports a bill to get the records of those adjudicated mentally incompetent and dangerous into the background check system for gun dealers, better enforcement of federal gun laws and beefed up penalties for illegal third-party purchases and gun trafficking. Shortly after the Newtown shooting, LaPierre called for armed security guards in schools as well.
LaPierre would like to see Congress pass a law that "updates the system and targets those mentally incompetent adjudicated into the system" and forces the administration to enforce the federal gun laws.
"It won't happen until the national media gets on the administration and calls them out for their incredible lack of enforcement of these laws," LaPierre said.
The NRA opposes universal background checks for gun purchasers, fearing it would lead to a national registry of gun owners that could be used by the government to some day confiscate guns. Mayors Against Illegal Guns and other gun-control advocates cite studies that suggest about 40 percent of U.S. gun transfers were conducted by private sellers not subject to federal laws requiring background checks.
In Colorado, a state with a pioneer tradition of gun ownership and self-reliance but also the scene of last summer's massacre at an Aurora movie theater, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper just signed bills requiring background checks for private and online gun sales. The legislation also would ban ammunition magazines that hold more than 15 rounds.
"After the shootings last summer in the movie theater, we really focused on mental health first then universal background checks," Hickenlooper said on CNN's "State of the Union." ''I think the feeling right now around assault weapons, at least in Colorado, is that they're so hard to define what an assault weapon is."
Hickenlooper said he met with a group of protesters against the bills in Grand Junction, Colorado, who were "very worried about government keeping a centralized database, which I assured them wasn't going to happen." The protesters, he added, view the background checks as "just the first step in trying to take guns away."
Bloomberg announced the television ad campaign on Saturday. The two ads posted on the group's website, called "Responsible" and "Family," show a gun owner holding a rifle while sitting on the back of a pickup truck. In one ad, the man says he'll defend the Second Amendment of the U.S. constitution which guarantees the right to bear arms, but adds that "with rights come responsibilities." The ad then urges viewers to tell Congress to support background checks.
In the other ad, the man, a hunter, says "background checks have nothing to do with taking guns away from anyone." The man then says closing loopholes will stop criminals and the mentally ill from obtaining weapons.
The NRA blasted Bloomberg and the new ads, saying NRA members and supporters would be calling senators directly and urging them to vote against proposed gun control legislation.
Associated Press writer Michele Salcedo in Washington contributed to this report.