LAS VEGAS — At Wild West Guns, where stuffed caribou and Dall sheep adorn the walls, customers know Harry Reid as someone who understands guns.
They can tell you he received a B rating from the National Rifle Association. That he helped secure land and money for one of the world’s largest shooting ranges. And that he once carried a gun as a police officer.
But now – amid enormous pressure, frustrated gun owners say – the longtime Democratic U.S. senator from Nevada has started to waver on an issue that has divided American society for decades.
“He’s in a tough spot,” said Dana Seleznoff, 50, as he wandered through the store on a break from his job as manager at a mobile billboard company. “He was born and raised here.”
It’s simple, says Seleznoff, the owner of 102 guns: If Reid votes against gun control, the senator is voting with Nevada. If he votes for gun control, he’s voting with Washington.
President Barack Obama is pushing Congress to pass the nation’s most aggressive gun control plan in generations, following the December mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., that claimed the lives of 26 victims, including 20 elementary school children. It would ban assault weapons, limit the capacity of ammunition magazines and require background checks on all purchases. The Senate already has launched hearings.
Reid, the Senate majority leader who likes to talk about how he used to hunt jackrabbits for his grandmother’s stew, not only gets a vote, but he controls what bills make it to the floor for a vote. He said he expects a series of bills on gun control to come to the floor for a vote in the coming months.
As he weighs his allegiance to his president with his Nevada roots, his support so far for the proposals has been tepid.
“He’s under incredible pressure right now because he’s got . . . his own beliefs,” National Rifle Association President David Keene told reporters at a recent roundtable interview. “He’s got the views and the demands of his constituents on the one hand, and the pressure he faces from party leaders and his president on the other. So where Harry Reid ends up in this debate is anybody’s guess, and I think that’s one of the guessing games that’s going on around Washington now.”
Reid declined to comment for this story. But in an interview Sunday on ABC he said he supports expanding background checks, though he was noncommittal on all other proposals. That includes the assault weapons ban, which he previously voted against and has said would be unlikely to pass a divided Congress.
“We’re going to have votes on all kinds of issues dealing with guns,” he said on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.” “And I think everyone would be well-advised to read the legislation before they determine how they’re going to vote for it.”
In the coming weeks, Reid’s decisions on the contentious issue will help determine the outcome of one of Obama’s top second-term goals, as well as the future makeup of a chamber controlled – barely – by Democrats.
“He’s more concerned with the Democratic Party than the country,” said Don Chism, 62, a commercial real estate agent browsing Wild West Guns who says he owns eight or nine firearms.
Reid has always been a staunch ally to Obama on his policy proposals, including the equally contentious issue of health care. But this time helping the president may hurt vulnerable Democrats in the Senate, even himself, although the 73-year-old Reid doesn’t face re-election until 2016.
His primary goal is to protect 21 Democratic-held seats up for election in 2014, and allowing a vote on gun control bills could hurt his colleagues who have to face voters in red states.
In places like North Carolina, Alaska and Louisiana, the right to keep and bear arms stems from the states’ earliest traditions. The same is true for Reid’s home state of Nevada.
Considered a conservative state on certain issues like gun control, Reid’s home has teetered back and forth between Republicans and Democrats. Obama won the state twice, in part because of a booming Hispanic population, but its governor and second U.S. senator are Republicans.
But residents of all stripes take their guns seriously: for protection, for target practice, for hunting.
A majority of Nevadans – 51 percent to 43 percent – believe it’s more important to protect the right to own any gun they want than to control ownership, according to a SurveyUSA poll released this week.
“There’s no political advantage for Harry Reid in the state to take on gun control,” said Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno.
In Las Vegas, gun shops dot the blocks around the flashy casinos on the world famous Strip. Shooting ranges advertise on billboards. Gun dealers fill the yellow pages.
At Wild West Guns, customers have their choice among handguns and rifles costing hundreds to thousands of dollars. Some date back a couple hundred years; others are custom-made. The store, now featured on a new TV show on the Animal Planet network, is known for lever-action firearms but also sells the type of weapons that could be banned under Obama’s proposal.
Owner Jim West, clad in jeans and a shirt bearing the name of his stores in Las Vegas and Anchorage, Alaska, predicts no future gun law would be able to prevent a mass shooting like the one in Newtown, where 20-year-old Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School with his mother’s legally bought guns.
Sitting in a backroom where employees were noisily repairing guns, West said the only way to stop the massacres is to allow teachers and principals to arm themselves and to restrict media from information about shooters, so they can’t become instant celebrities who others might want to mimic.
“Whenever you make more laws, you’re legislating law-abiding citizens,” he said.
This is the Nevada Reid grew up in – just 50 miles from the glitz and glamour of Vegas in the tiny town of Searchlight, population 500, in a small cabin without indoor plumbing. His father was a hard rock miner and his mother a laundress. As a boy, he hunted doves and jackrabbits. As an adult, he carried a gun – working his way through law school as a Capitol police officer, prosecutor and head of the powerful Nevada Gaming Commission. As a senator, the NRA gave him money and a respectable rating, though never its endorsement.
Sometimes, in explaining his familiarity with guns, Reid mentions that his father killed himself with a shotgun. Reid no longer hunts, though he says he still owns guns for sentimental reasons.
Steve Sebelius, a columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, said those who live outside Nevada may consider Reid just another liberal. But on some issues – gun control perhaps more than any other – the senator is not what he may appear.
“They look at him and think he’s a liberal and a water boy for the Democratic agenda,” Sebelius said. “But he’s not the liberal Democrat people think he is.”
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