By John Whitesides
BATON ROUGE, Louisiana (Reuters) - In the gun-friendly state of Louisiana, the backlash against President Barack Obama's proposed restrictions on firearms seems to be everywhere.
It can be seen in the frenzied sales and empty racks at Jim's Firearms store in the state capital, Baton Rouge, where customers have rushed to make purchases as Congress weighs several gun-control bills.
It is evident in the state Legislature, where a series of bills aimed at protecting gun owners' rights have been introduced as a counter-punch to Obama's push in Washington.
It is abundantly clear in the sea of hands that pop up when a congressman asks an overflow crowd in Baton Rouge how many are worried about their constitutional right to bear arms being threatened.
Obama's call for Americans to stand up against gun violence after the December massacre of 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school reignited a national debate over gun control, and drew calls for expanded background checks on gun buyers and a ban on military-style "assault" weapons.
A Senate committee will take up at least four gun-control proposals on Thursday.
But in Louisiana and other states where traditions of gun ownership and hunting run deep, the Democratic president's efforts have not just failed to register: they have galvanized opposition to any attempts to restrict firearms - and complicated the prospects for gun-control measures in Congress.
"This has been a rallying cry for people to draw a line in the sand and say, 'We are not going to allow this to happen to our guns,'" said state Representative Jeff Thompson, a Republican who has launched a campaign called "Defend Louisiana" to fight federal and state gun-control proposals.
The revolt against gun restrictions in states like Louisiana poses a dilemma for some Democrats from conservative, pro-gun states who in recent years have largely managed to avoid dwelling on the issue.
Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana is among a half-dozen Democratic senators from such states who are up for re-election next year and are likely to be crucial in determining what gun-control proposals emerge from the Democratic-led Senate.
In Louisiana, Republicans and gun-rights groups are vowing to make Landrieu pay next year if she supports any of the measures. When asked about the pending gun legislation, Landrieu treads carefully.
While people are concerned about the safety of children and what happened in Connecticut, "the other side is very concerned about the government using this incident or other incidents to overreach and restrict their constitutional right to firearms and self-protection," Landrieu said. "So, it is going to be a challenge."
National polls show overwhelming public support for broader background checks on gun sales, and majority support for more controversial measures such as a ban on assault weapons.
But the political reality is quite different in Louisiana, which bills itself as a "sportsman's paradise."
Three-quarters of Louisiana voters backed a state constitutional amendment in November requiring that the most stringent legal standards be used in evaluating whether new laws infringe on gun rights, giving the state what is widely viewed as perhaps the strongest pro-gun laws in the nation.
Gun-rights bills pending in the Legislature, introduced since the Connecticut shootings, include three that would block enforcement of any federal gun-control mandates that conflict with state laws.
Louisiana is one of 27 states considering laws to block new restrictions or reinforce gun rights, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.
'TAKING OUR RIGHTS'
At a recent town-hall meeting in Baton Rouge hosted by Republican U.S. Representative Bill Cassidy, which was billed as a discussion of the economy, about half the questions focused on how to stop Obama's gun-control proposals.
When Cassidy asked how many in the overflow crowd at a local library were worried about losing their right to bear arms, which is spelled out in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, nearly all raised their hands.
"I'm concerned that Obama is already going around Congress to do everything as it is. What is going to stop him from taking our rights away?" asked Chris Wade, a retired engineer from Baton Rouge who said he owned hunting rifles and shotguns.
Cassidy, a Baton Rouge physician and a possible challenger to Landrieu in next year's Senate race, said he did not think Obama's proposals would keep guns out of the hands of criminals or do anything to stop massacres like the one in Connecticut.
His views are echoed by others in the Republican majority in the U.S. House, which is likely to narrow whatever gun-control legislation emerges from the Senate.
"If we're just talking about feel-good legislation that makes people think the president is doing something, I'm not going to support it," Cassidy said in an interview.
Some in the crowd said the proposals could be a step toward a national registry of guns, which pro-gun groups such as the National Rifle Association warn could be the first step in a government seizure of citizens' weapons - a scenario that Obama and other gun-control advocates dismiss as fantasy.
Republicans in the state's congressional delegation, including Senator David Vitter, vow to oppose Obama's proposals.
Landrieu - who voted against renewing the initial version of the assault weapons ban when it expired in 2004 after a decade as law - has been non-committal. She said she supported "common-sense reforms" and that she would carefully review proposals before the Senate.
Other Senate Democrats from gun-friendly states who will be watched closely during the gun-control debate include Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Max Baucus of Montana and Tim Johnson of South Dakota.
All are up for re-election in 2014. In a sign of what could be ahead, the NRA ran full-page newspaper ads recently targeting Landrieu, Pryor and Hagan. Democrats control 55 of the Senate's 100 seats, and while some Republicans have expressed support for some of the gun-control measures, any bill could face trouble if a few Democrats oppose it.
In states like Louisiana, where Republican challenger Mitt Romney crushed Obama by more than 17 percentage points in last year's presidential election, Democrats learned long ago that bucking the gun culture was not a path to success.
"Politically, there is nothing to be gained statewide in Louisiana by being seen as anything other than a very strong supporter of Second Amendment rights," said Robert Mann, a professor at Louisiana State University who was an aide to former U.S. Democratic Senator John Breaux.
"You just don't want to be talking about guns," Mann said. "If people are deciding the race on guns, they are going to vote for the Republican."
AVOIDING 'THAT KILLER VOTE'
Jason Dore, executive director of the Louisiana Republican Party, said Landrieu had managed to walk a delicate line on gun control for years.
"She's been very smart in the past about not casting that killer vote" against gun rights, Dore said.
Landrieu in 2009 cast a key vote for Obama's healthcare overhaul, a plan that analysts say has significant opposition in Louisiana. Republicans hope to highlight that vote in next year's Senate campaign. Dore said a Landrieu vote favoring gun-control measures would be another boost to her eventual Republican challenger.
The debate over gun control has "almost been a favor to our party," Dore said. "We were down in the doldrums after the (2012) election and it ... re-energized our base."
As in other areas of the country, Obama's gun-control proposals have been a short-term boon to gun sellers in Louisiana, who have seen their inventories fly off the shelves.
"It's created more panic than I have ever seen," said Cid Dillard, general manager of Jim's Firearms, one of the biggest gun suppliers in Baton Rouge. Dillard said the store did about six months' worth of typical sales of sales in the five weeks after the shootings in Connecticut.
"It was crazy. I had 70-year-olds coming in saying, 'What's an AR-15, can I have one?' They wanted to get one while they could," he said, referring to a type of semi-automatic rifle used in the Connecticut shootings.
The voices in support of gun control have been restrained in Louisiana. Most national gun-control groups do not have a chapter in the state.
Lewis Unglesby, one of Louisiana's most prominent lawyers, said he had been "totally rebuffed" since speaking recently on a radio talk show and at the Baton Rouge Press Club in favor of a ban on assault weapons.
"I haven't heard from a single politician. Pure silence. And they all know how to call me when they want money," said Unglesby, a self-described hunter who owns guns.
Holley Haymaker, a family physician who works as a mental-health provider in public schools, was the only one to speak in favor of the congressional gun-control proposals at Cassidy's town-hall meeting. The response was polite but chilly.
"It's a tough argument to make in Louisiana," she said.
(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro in Washington; Editing by David Lindsey and Peter Cooney)
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