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Gun control rising issue in race for Senate seat

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The rising number of mass murders carried out with legally purchased semiautomatic guns is bubbling up as a factor in Ohio’s 2016 race for the U.S. Senate.

Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) voted against two Democratic-backed amendments Thursday that would have broadened background checks for gun purchasers and prohibited people on the federal terrorist watch list from buying guns.

His leading Democratic opponent, former Gov. Ted Strickland, has departed from his adherence to National Rifle Association positions to endorse expanded background checks on gun buyers.

And a second candidate for the Democratic nomination, Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, is trying to position himself as the most ardent advocate of gun control.

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The two measures were offered as amendments to a Republican-backed measure to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

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The background check, known as the Manchin-Toomey amendment, failed with 50 senators opposed and 48 senators in favor. The second amendment, named after Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), would have allowed the attorney general to bar anyone on the terrorism watch list from acquiring guns or explosive licenses if it was reasonably believed they might use them in a terrorist act. The amendment was defeated 53-44.

In a prepared statement, Mr. Portman said the Manchin-Toomey amendment would not be effective and would make it harder for law-abiding Ohioans to exercise their Constitutionally guaranteed right to bear arms.

He said Congress should enact legislation that assures that people with mental illness get the care they need, but not the guns that they might want.

“I believe that we can curb gun violence by enforcing current law and strengthening background checks by adding far better mental health records,” Mr. Portman said in a prepared statement.

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As for the amendment to prevent sales to people on watch lists, he said he supports an alternative measure sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas) that gives the attorney general 72 hours to obtain a warrant to deny a gun sale to someone on the watch list, but that the government should not be able to do it without probable cause.

Mr. Portman said people have been on the watch list incorrectly or by accident.

Mr. Portman is running for a second six-year term in office and hopes to avoid a Republican challenge in the March 15 primary. The deadline for a primary opponent to file is Dec. 16.

David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron, said the NRA has a reputation for taking on politicians who don’t support its interpretation of the 2nd Amendment.

“The last thing any elected official wants to be is in the bull’s-eye of the NRA,” Mr. Cohen said. “Portman does not want to have a primary challenge, either now or six years from now.”

He said polls show that voters in both major political parties strongly support stricter background checks of gun buyers.

“I think it would behoove him to move to the mainstream on this issue, and right now he’s out of the mainstream,” Mr. Cohen said. “It seems that Strickland is tacking to the middle on this issue. That’s where the general electorate is.”

But Mark Weaver, a Columbus-based Republican strategist who was a consultant for Mr. Portman in 2010, said he does not think the senator’s stance on background checks will hurt him in the election. He said most voters know that the vast majority of guns are bought with background checks carried out and that the Manchin-Toomey amendment would not have prevented recent mass shootings.

He also contended that Mr. Strickland’s past ownership of an A-plus rating by the NRA will make it difficult for him to criticize Mr. Portman on gun issues.

“He campaigned with a camouflage bus,” Mr. Weaver recalled. “The notion that Ted Strickland is going to be able to politically criticize Rob Portman over the NRA is not credible.”

Mr. Portman’s campaign-finance reports for 2015 show two contributions from the NRA totaling $4,950 out of total campaign contributions of $7.2 million. 

Strickland spokesman Jennifer Donohue said Mr. Strickland has changed his position, as have others, since the attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December, 2012, during which a deranged gunman shot 26 people, mostly children. The semiautomatic rifle the killer used belonged to his mother.

Had Mr. Strickland been in the Senate this week rather than Mr. Portman, Ms. Donohue said, the expanded-background-checks bill would likely have passed.

“It’s the only serious strong policy proposal that’s actually been voted on. Ted’s a yes and Portman’s a no, and that’s a very stark meaningful difference,” the spokesman said.

Mr. Sittenfeld said in a speech Friday in Akron that Mr. Strickland and Mr. Portman are no different. Both have “groveled for an A-rating from the NRA.”

Mr. Sittenfeld promised an aggressive effort to curtail access to guns if he is elected, including to reinstate a ban on military-style assault weapons.

Dale Butland, a spokesman for Mr. Sittenfeld, said Ohio is the only state with a U.S. Senate race in 2016 where both of the leading party candidates have A-ratings from the NRA.

Contact Tom Troy: tomtroy@theblade.com or 419-724-6058 or on Twitter @TomFTroy.

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