NEW YORK (Reuters) - Joe Manchin walked into a clearing holding a rifle, took a bullet from his jacket pocket and placed it in the gun’s chamber.
“As your senator, I’ll protect your Second Amendment rights” to bear arms, Manchin, then a candidate for the Senate, said in a 2010 campaign video.
“That’s why the NRA endorsed me,” the West Virginia Democrat added, referring to the gun lobbying organization.
Manchin then promised to oppose President Barack Obama’s healthcare overhaul and “take dead aim” at an environmental bill unpopular in West Virginia’s coal country. For emphasis, he shot a hole through a copy of the bill.
On Wednesday, the senator who sought so clearly to distance himself from Obama three years ago seemed to come to the rescue of his fellow Democrat.
Manchin joined Pennsylvania Republican Senator Pat Toomey to form a compromise plan that would preserve a key part of Obama’s embattled gun-control package: a plan to expand background checks of prospective gun buyers to those who make purchases online and at gun shows.
If the legislation makes it through the Democratic-led Senate and the Republican-controlled House - a still-difficult task - the deer hunter long known as a friend to the National Rifle Association would be a pivotal player in passage of the most significant federal gun-control legislation in nearly two decades.
The measure “will not only help keep guns out of the wrong hands - it will help save lives and keep our communities safe,” said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, one of the country’s strongest advocates for gun restrictions.
Being cast as a face of gun control is something new for Manchin, who along with a few other Democrats from conservative states, is typically not in step with Obama and others in his party who have pressed for more limits on guns.
Neil Berch, a political scientist at West Virginia University, said that merely discussing the idea of expanding background checks to try to keep guns from criminals and the mentally ill led Manchin to catch “a lot of flak from gun advocates within the state.”
West Virginia is not a friendly state to Obama, who has traveled across the country calling for stricter gun laws since the massacre of 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in December.
Last May, a prison inmate who ran against Obama in West Virginia’s Democratic presidential primary got 41 percent of the vote. In last November’s election that gave Obama a second term in the White House, Republican candidate Mitt Romney won West Virginia by 27 percentage points.
In backing the compromise on background checks, Manchin made clear that the December 14 killings at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School were on his mind.
“Truly, the events at Newtown changed us all. It changed out country, our communities, our towns, and it changed our hearts and minds,” Manchin said.
The support from Manchin, a former quarterback for the West Virginia University football team and a popular former governor, could make it easier for several conservative Democrats who are up for re-election in 2014 to embrace changes in gun laws.
Senators Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana are among those Democrats who have been reluctant to wade into the recent debate over gun control.
A recent poll in West Virginia indicated that Manchin’s constituents were in line with the rest of the country in wanting to expand background checks on gun buyers.
Three out of four residents surveyed by Orion Strategies in March backed universal criminal background checks - a broader change than Manchin and Toomey advocate.
In West Virginia, according to the survey, 63 percent of households had guns, compared with 41 percent nationwide.
“I have spoken this morning with all my friends in the gun state of West Virginia,” Manchin told reporters on Wednesday morning. “I think I have support from who would be the most critical gun advocates as anybody in the country. They understand that this is common sense. This is gun sense.”
Reporting By Samuel P. Jacobs; Editing by Peter Cooney