HELENA - Two Montana Democrats are leading the charge against gun control - even helping force the military to continue selling surplus brass to gun aficionados who want cheaper ammunition.
U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester are not simply placating gun advocates with a vague promise to vote against gun control in Congress. They are forcing former political foes to recognize that Democrats could be their strongest allies while the party controls Washington D.C.
It's creating uncertain bedfellows on an issue that wins or loses races in places like Montana.
The pair have been taking the lead on issues that only the most ardent gun rights advocates were talking about. Just last week they joined Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg of Montana to pressure the Defense Department in a move that is credited with overturning a short-lived brass ban.
"The letter sent by the Montana delegation had a major impact on the reversal of that decision, and for that gun owners all over the country are grateful," said Chris W. Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist.
The issue had created a firestorm on the Internet forums frequented by assault rifle fans and others, but was largely unknown outside those circles. The brass is important to gun aficionados who reload their own bullets or seek to buy cheaper ammunition from companies that purchase the surplus brass.
It was also Tester and Baucus who were among the first taking shots at an Obama administration statement in favor of renewing the assault rifle ban, telling their fellow Democrats to expect strong opposition.
The strong pro-gun moves are forcing the gun rights community to recognize that the key Democrats could be their strongest allies. Tester said the gun lobby knows it can trust him and Baucus - and gun-control Democrats know not to even bring up the issue.
"We are going to be an asset to them, no doubt about it," said Tester. "We are going to do what we think is right, based on what we think is right, not what someone else in the Senate thinks is right or what our party thinks is right."
The controversy over the brass ban was perhaps most closely tracked at ar15.com, a forum and community for assault rifle fans. The site's founder, Edward Avila of Rochester N.Y., says cheap ammunition for reloading is important to people like himself who frequently practice in order to be responsible gun owners.
He said the gun debate this year, where Democrats like Tester and Baucus are being outspoken, will be a learning experience for many.
"I think that as it's viewed, that it minimizes the separation between Republicans and Democrats," Avila said. "It's good to see that representation from the Democrats."
The alliance is not lost on gun control advocates.
"It's not like Democrats are automatically on one side and Republicans on the other. It can cut both ways," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "It is still very frustrating to us."
Just a couple weeks ago, gun advocates who reload their own ammunition were sent into a frenzy over a Defense Department decision to stop selling surplus bullet brass. Just about as quickly as groups like the National Rifle Association could get involved so did Tester and Baucus - and the ban was quickly lifted.
"It's about living up to what is in the Constitution. It's a good document, it's gotten us to where we're at," said Tester. "It would be the same thing if the government came out and limited our right to assemble."
The Defense Department indicated earlier this month that it was suspending sales of selling surplus military small arms cartridges as it reviewed its impact on national security.
The military sold an average 300,000 to 500,000 pounds a month, according to one of the biggest buyers, Georgia Arms of Villa Rica, Georgia.
Baucus has old wounds in the gun control battle. He voted for gun control back in the early 1990s - and nearly lost his Senate seat in 1996. That campaign was so bitter that the Montana Shooting Sports Association ran an advertisement comparing Baucus to Hitler.
Things are different now. The author of that advertisement, MSSA founder Gary Marbut, personally attended a ceremony last summer where the National Rifle Association gave Baucus its election year seal of approval.
And now Marbut is at the head of the line thanking Baucus and Tester for forcing the Defense Department to keep selling brass. Gun advocates worried the ban would have sent bullet prices way up.
"I'm really glad that Baucus and Tester got onto it," Marbut said. "It's something they could do and look good to. That does not diminish the fact we appreciate how quickly they get involved."
Baucus doesn't spend any time dwelling about the battles of the mid-1990s. The NRA now counts him as a solid ally, and Baucus embraces it.
Baucus said the military ban on surplus brass is an example of an administrative action that can hurt gun owners and lead to other issues.
"I think it's very important for us Westerners to be eternally diligent, to not let any daylight between Montanans and the Second Amendment," Baucus said. "We have strongly held views about the Second Amendment, more so than other states - and we represent Montana and not those other states."
The U.S. Supreme Court decided last year that the Second Amendment right to bear and keep arms indeed gives Americans a right to own guns for self-defense and hunting.