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Brantley: Nuts about guns 

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U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia said on Fox News Sunday that he wanted to try again to get Senate approval of the modest legislation to expand background checks for gun purchases.

Not good news for U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, if Manchin is successful. He's already painted himself into a political corner.

Pryor was one of four Democrats who prevented a vote on the majority-supported legislation.

Was he lauded for his action by those who oppose all gun regulation? No. The Republican Party said Pryor's record was rife with contradictions on guns; that he's not to be trusted. The gun control campaign led by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was reported to be considering unloading a bucket of money to defeat Pryor in 2014 so as to make him an example.

David Letterman made Pryor his "Stooge of the Night" for his vote. He noted that in Pryor's days as a state representative he'd voted for some legislation that amounted to gun control, at least by the very narrow definition that now applies.

"I don't take gun advice from the mayor of New York City," Pryor jabbed back.

But is Pryor doing what Arkansas voters demand?

A poll conducted for a bipartisan mayors' group found that 84 percent of Arkansas residents want every gun buyer to pass a criminal background check.

The gun enthusiasts scoff at the numbers. They may be right at least as far as enthusiasm is concerned. The last time the Arkansas Poll at the University of Arkansas sampled sentiment — in 2010 before several infamous gun massacres — 51 percent said they were satisfied with gun laws as they were, 28 percent wanted them stricter and only 15 percent wanted them less strict.

Given the lack of hunger for loosening gun laws, how do you explain the recent Arkansas legislative session at which 15 bills were passed to do just that, particularly at a time when legislators in many other states were moving in the opposite direction? It certainly isn't that guns have made Arkansas safer and more will make us safer still. The suicide by firearm rate is much higher in Arkansas than in other states. So, too, is the rate at which women are slain by intimate partners with a gun. Gun trafficking is also lower in states that require background checks. More guns mean more gunshot wounds, the statistics show, whether by crime or accident.

I'd like to think the Arkansas legislature's votes reflect the ardor of a minority, the gun lobby, and the timidity of legislators. I'd like to think the Arkansas Poll is more reflective of middle-of-the-road Arkansas attitudes.

So what's so bad with Mark Pryor emulating the Arkansas legislature? It discourages his moderate and liberal base. It wins no friends on the fringe. He becomes uncomfortably reminiscent of Blanche Lincoln, leaping toward Republican positions just in time for election.

Mark Pryor could have made a principled and brave case for expanded background checks — and still voted against assault weapon and large ammo magazine bans. He didn't and he isn't likely to flipflop should Manchin give him a do-over.

As I wrote earlier on the Arkansas Blog, Pryor's decision was wrong as a matter of policy, wrong as a matter of courage and, worst of all for him, wrong as a matter of politics. He will lose votes. Lots of them — to the Green Party, to non-votes and even to some gun owners who find the NRA position too extreme. The power of the bullies will increase.

The Bloomberg group may spend its money against Pryor and claim a scalp, but it will be a self-inflicted haircut. If he is defeated, his successor will be someone even worse — and not just on guns.

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