Though Baucus specifically rejected the assault rifle ban, he stopped short of mentioning expanded background checks by name. Baucus indicated he prefers the focus was elsewhere.
"Instead of focusing on new laws, Max believes the first step should be effectively enforcing the laws already on the books," Baucus spokeswoman Jennifer Donohue said Thursday.
The entire debate represents a potential replay of the most difficult fight of his career, when Baucus voted for the 1993 Brady Bill that established background checks and the original 1994 ban on assault rifles and high-capacity clips.
Those votes led to the closest election in four decades of politics for Baucus, a narrow victory in a bitter campaign against Republican Denny Rehberg.
The other Democratic senators in rural states could find themselves in similar fights and have been cagey over the issue. Most have taken a wait-and-see approach.
The NRA last month launched an advertising campaign aimed squarely at this group, sending a strong message. The organization did not return a call seeking comment.
Democratic political operatives say the NRA could be overplaying its hand this time, arguing some sportsmen may be willing to listen to moderate proposals.
Still, Baucus and his colleagues aren't likely to take risks and by next year's election, he and others could seek to turn the issue to their advantage by using a pro-gun stance to appeal to conservative and libertarian-minded voters.
"Why wouldn't he want to talk about guns?" said Montana State University political scientist David Parker. "Sen. Baucus is as about as middle of the road as they get in the United States Senate. What he doesn't want to do is have himself painted as a national Democrat or as an Obama Democrat."
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