WASHINGTON — Mike Thompson is walking point again.
This time, the Northern California congressman and former Vietnam War infantryman is stepping out ahead of gun control. His job, in part, is to find politically feasible firearms solutions that can work without endangering his fellow Democrats in the House of Representatives.
“There’s always a concern in the legislative process that some want to go too far, and some won’t go far enough,” Thompson said an interview.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., tapped Thompson to head what they are calling the Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. In coming weeks, the 61-year-old Thompson says he will “meet with as many folks as we possibly can” in crafting a legislative package that will start with reviving an assault weapon ban but might extend into newer ideas.
“I’d like to have had this done yesterday,” Thompson said, “but we’re not going to sacrifice accuracy for speed. My job is to do this right.”
Thompson is not a National Rifle Association member, and he has never been endorsed by the gun group. Still, he brings other moderating attributes to the politically sensitive job. The congressional district he has represented since 1999 has spanned a rural swath that includes California’s rugged North Coast; his new district includes rural Napa and Sonoma counties. Thompson is a gun owner, a lifelong hunter and a former co-chair of the 300-plus member Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus.
Not least, Thompson can speak with undisguised authority about serious weapons: The wounded veteran wears on his lapel a replica of the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, which he earned while serving in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
“He will reassure folks that this is really about protecting children, and it is not about taking away any Second Amendment rights,” said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.
Still, the challenge will be particularly acute for lawmakers, such as Thompson and Welch, who represent significantly rural districts where gun ownership is commonplace and NRA vote ratings can score big. Though far from the only reason, antipathy toward a 1994 assault weapon ban contributed to the defeat of 34 House Democrats that year. Former President Bill Clinton, whose own missteps contributed to his party’s trouncing, asserted in his memoir that the NRA “could rightly claim to have made” Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich the House speaker because of the 1994 election results.
Thompson himself will have to think big, casting his mind beyond California’s borders. Because the state’s gun laws are stricter than most, a legislative package that’s overly reliant on what’s doable in California might stumble on Capitol Hill.
On the other hand, Thompson and his allies may have more maneuvering room than some think, because the 2012 elections showed the NRA’s fallibility. The gun organization spent more than $100,000 in each of five Senate races this year, records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics show; all five candidates lost in those races in Missouri, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin and Virginia.
Further propelling prospects for gun control legislation is the still-fresh memory of slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where Adam Lanza used a Bushmaster .223-caliber semiautomatic weapon to kill 26 people on Dec. 14.
“That’s what has brought this momentum,” said Rep. Jim Costa, a California Democrat and self-described centrist who said his support for further gun control measures “really depends on what’s in the package.”
The package being prepared by Thompson and the House Democrats’ gun task force eventually will have to merge or compete with other efforts. Under the supervision of Vice President Joe Biden, President Barack Obama has established his own gun control task force, which Obama says will provide recommendations “no later than January.” California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein is circulating draft legislation in the Senate that focuses on reviving an assault weapon ban. Feinstein says she will introduce her bill on the first day of the new Congress.
“There is no more uphill fight than this,” Feinstein said in a news conference Friday, cautioning that “it may take a year, it may take two, it may take three.”
Although Democrats control the Senate, the institution’s rules make it easy for individual senators to block or detour legislation. In the House, moreover, Republicans control the committees and the floor, through which any legislation must pass.
“Unless they get buy-in from the Republican leaders, it won’t go anywhere,” Costa said of the House Democratic efforts.
The incoming chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Virginia Republican Robert Goodlatte, earned an “A” rating from the NRA Political Victory Fund in 2010 and a 92 percent rating from the gun group for his positions this year.