Will Democrats finally win on gun sales by being less ambitious?

Gun control advocates who’ve failed for decades to impose sweeping limits on weapons purchases may finally have hit upon a winning strategy as they push for a narrower ban on gun sales to suspected terrorists in the wake of the Orlando massacre.

Compared with previous attempts to impose universal background checks or restrict gun show transactions, the new push has two features that make it more politically palatable: It would apply to a very small group of people instead of to all Americans; and it is tied to the nation’s broader anti-terror initiatives.

“Polling shows that the public overwhelmingly believes this is the way to go,” Richard Benedetto, a political science and journalism professor at American University in Washington, told McClatchy. “There is no question that the Democrats see this as a political strength for them and are playing it to the hilt, down to the occupation of the House. They basically see themselves on the side of the angels right now.”

The extraordinary Democratic sit-in last week in the House of Representatives, waged as a protest against House Republican leaders’ refusal to take up measures imposing the so-called “no fly, no buy” limits, left gun control supporters feeling like they’d turned a legislative loss into a political victory. As many as 168 Democratic House members and 34 Democratic senators took part, including 50 who spent the night.

“What this did was it ratcheted up the intensity in this debate higher than it’s ever been before,” Rep. Ted Deutch, a Boca Raton, Florida, Democrat, said moments after the sit-in ended. “That’s going to continue when we leave here. It’s going to continue at home.”

Ironically, such a limited ban might not have prevented Omar Mateen from purchasing the assault rifle and semi-automatic revolver he bought on successive days from two Florida gun stores about a week before he opened first in the wee hours of June 12 at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. By the time police shot him dead after a three-hour standoff and a gun battle, 49 people were dead. Mateen also was killed.

Mateen was reportedly on one of the FBI’s terrorist watch lists in 2013 and 2014 when agents interviewed him about his alleged statements expressing sympathy with Islamic jihadists, but he’d been removed by the time he purchased the weapons used in his Orlando rampage. Proposed legislation would sweep in anyone who’d been on the watch list in the previous five years.

Most Republicans came out against the more narrow gun-sales ban, with House Speaker Paul Ryan citing opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union.

“In this country, we do not take away people’s constitutional rights without due process,” Ryan said. “This is not just Republicans saying this. It’s groups like the ACLU who are saying this.”

But some GOP lawmakers broke ranks.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Miami Republican, led a bipartisan group of nine lawmakers who gathered outside the Capitol on Friday to promote the Terrorist Firearms Prevention Act, a House companion bill to a Senate measure introduced earlier in the week by GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

“Some of our colleagues say this is all about terrorism,” Curbelo, a first-term representative, told reporters. “Others say this is all about guns. We are coming together to say that this is about keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous terrorists.”

Curbelo and other lawmakers said the legislation would authorize the U.S. attorney general to prevent about 3,000 suspected terrorists on the government’s no-fly list from obtaining guns.

That number, however, is far smaller than the figure cited this week [JR: June 20] by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Californian said the list has 81,000 names, with fewer than 1,000 of them belonging to Americans.

The smaller number could be the number of people who are not allowed to board commercial flights, while the higher figure might describe those who must undergo more thorough searches before being allowed to fly.

Former Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia, who Curbelo defeated in 2014 and is now trying to reclaim his seat, accused the Cuban-American Republican of pandering and trying to exploit the Orlando tragedy for political gain.

“Unlike Curbelo, I have always supported sensible gun laws that keep our communities safe,” Garcia said.

Javier Hernandez, his campaign spokesman, added: “After taking thousands of dollars in NRA and gun lobby donations, Curbelo introduces a measure that will go nowhere and which he himself has (previously) voted against in an attempt to mislead South Florida voters.”

Rep. David Jolly, a Republican from Indian Shores, on Florida’s Gulf coast, unveiled similar legislation last week. Both House measures and the Senate bill contain various provisions aimed at protecting individuals’ civil liberties, especially those placed on FBI watch lists erroneously. The provisions include requiring gun stores to provide them prompt notice of any snag and giving them early access to federal courts to appeal a block.

Collins’ Senate legislation also has some bipartisan support.

“At the end of the day, this really is about counter-terrorism, not gun control,” said Sen. Lindsay Graham, a South Carolinian who is among a handful of Republicans on board. “We are a nation at war against radical Islam and under increasing threats both at home and abroad.”

Graham blamed President Barack Obama for having “helped give rise” to those threats. He did not, though, go as far as presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who blamed the president for the Orlando tragedy, or Sen. John McCain, who said he was “directly responsible” – a claim the Arizona Republican later retracted.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has embraced the “no fly, no buy” legislation. She bitterly criticized Trump for having tied the Orlando massacre to the president.

Obama pulled back from pushing new gun restrictions in the wake of the outrage he sparked with his 2008 campaign comment that working-class voters “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy” during tough economic times. It was not a top priority in his 2012 campaign.

Now a lame-duck president, Obama went back on the offensive for gun control in emotional comments on the day of the Orlando shooting and in a blistering speech the next day.

“We are going to have to make sure that we think about the risks we are willing to take by being so lax in how we make very powerful firearms available to people in this country,” he said.

Before the Orlando tragedy, Obama in January issued an executive order increasing the number of people subject to background checks when trying to buy guns.

Christopher Arterton, former dean of the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, said the Orlando shooting and the narrow focus of the “no fly, no buy” legislation have given gun control advocates new momentum.

“They’ve finally found a way of positioning the gun issue that is both popular and somewhat reasonable even in the context of the NRA’s strong, almost unyielding defense of an expansive definition of the Second Amendment,” Arterton said, referring to the National Rifle Association.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz , the Florida Democrat who chairs the Democratic National Committee, said her party’s push for the limited ban is not motivated by election calculations.

“This is not about politics or who can gain an advantage in November,” she said. “This is about those Americans who are losing their lives to gun violence, the Republican (congressional) members’ warped priorities and their contentment to allow someone on the terror watch list to buy a firearm.”

Lisa Gold, a forensic psychiatrist at the Georgetown University School of Medicine who’s written extensively about gun violence, offers a more downbeat assessment for gun-control advocates.

While happy to see some movement on gun control, she notes the limited measures now being pushed in Congress would not prevent the vast majority of the roughly 33,000 annual firearm deaths in the United States. She said focusing on the circumstances of the most recent mass shooting ignores the fact that “almost 100 people a day die from gun violence.”

“It’s not terrorists, it’s not LBGT or African-American victims – it’s unrestricted access to weapons, including military-grade weapons, to civilians of all kinds who may act violently under certain circumstances,” she said.

Megan Henney of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report

James Rosen: 202-383-0014; Twitter: jamesmartinrose