By The Associated Press
Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin would seem to be an automatic yes vote for almost any gun control proposal, including the proposed ban on assault weapons being debated in Washington this week. During her 14 years in the House, the liberal Democrat was a solid supporter of firearms restrictions and proudly received the National Rifle Association's lowest possible rating.
Yet Baldwin has shied away from talk of the ban, which is part of the legislation pressed after last year's Connecticut grade school massacre. While not ruling it out, she has repeatedly noted the practical obstacles to the idea and the wider support for expanded background checks for firearm purchasers.
Her cautious path shows the altered thought process of a new senator now representing one of the nation's most politically balanced states, rather than just one of its most left-leaning congressional districts. It also illuminates the rocky road ahead for a provision the Senate's leadership has been cool to embrace.
But the hesitation has some of her most loyal supporters concerned.
"She's right on so many things. It's hard to imagine her being wrong on this," said Madison lawyer Ed Garvey, a leading Wisconsin liberal Democrat.
Before winning election to the Senate in November, Baldwin voted to allow lawsuits against gun manufacturers and to block any reduction of the required waiting period in firearms purchases.
Two mass shootings in Wisconsin last year heightened expectations among gun control supporters in the state for tougher federal action.
"She seems the portrait of someone who would work sensibly on this issue," said Ladd Everitt of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
Yet Baldwin, reflecting the range of views in a state with a strong hunting tradition, is now the only Democratic senator from the upper Midwest who hasn't publicly backed the ban on assault-style weapons and larger ammunition cartridges, provisions included in Vice President Joe Biden's proposal and backed by President Barack Obama.
Six Democratic senators from neighboring states have declared as either co-sponsors or supporters of the ban. They include Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, where six people died last fall in a Minneapolis workplace shooting.
In a rare interview on the gun issue in January, she said: "I start again with the things I think we can win bipartisan support for- the universal background check being one of the first I would talk about."
She described any attempt to ban assault weapons or high-capacity ammunition magazines as "obviously very tricky politically."
She hedged again this week in Washington when asked about a ban provision. "It's a question, as it was in the '90s, of how you define what's on the list" of banned weapons, she said at the Capitol.
Similar qualms have been expressed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a gun-rights advocate and Nevada Democrat. Many in Washington doubt there is enough support in the Senate to approve a ban.
Some of Baldwin's supporters say her vague position isn't surprising.
"It's the natural progression for a legislator from a progressive district now representing the entire state," said Rev. Jerry Hancock, a gun-control advocate and pastor of First Congregational Church in Madison, which Baldwin attends.
Baldwin has been lobbied hard by gun-control advocates and victims' families, including Amardeep Kalekaof, whose father was killed last fall in the mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek.
Baldwin also met privately last week with Dr. Stephen Hargarten, director of the Injury Research Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Hargarten, among the nation's leaders in gunshot injuries, has called for treating shootings as a public health problem.