Kagan told senators during her recent confirmation hearings that an individual's right to bear arms under the Second Amendment is "settled law."
When asked if there's a fundamental right to own a gun for self-defense in one's home, she said, "There is no doubt ... that is binding precedent ... in any case."
But members of the powerful National Rifle Association say Kagan's responses amount to a smokescreen, and the gun-rights organization has launched a last-ditch effort to oppose her confirmation. The NRA has warned it will campaign against any Kagan supporter who faces re-election in the years ahead.
"Everything in her background suggests a vote for Elena Kagan is a vote against gun rights," said Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA's lobbying arm.
Kagan helped shape gun control policy as an adviser in the Clinton administration, and wrote "I'm not sympathetic" in a 1987 memo to Justice Thurgood Marshall in a case involving a gun-rights claim. Cox said there had been some hope she would offer a clear endorsement of recent Supreme Court precedent upholding gun rights, but that hope was dashed.
"Supporting a nominee who won't answer a straightforward question on the constitutional right to own a gun is not acceptable," he said. "She was using legal terms for political cover."
The NRA's line in the sand was one reason why Senate Republicans blocked a scheduled Judiciary Committee vote on Kagan's nomination Tuesday, delaying it until next week.
"Most of us would have thought 'settled law' means more than 'deference to precedent,'" said Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who worries that Kagan doesn't view the Supreme Court's recent decisions on individual gun rights as immutable.
Still, while most political strategists believe the NRA's campaign won't derail Kagan's expected confirmation -- Democrats have the votes and Republicans seem disinclined to filibuster -- it could add political pressure on Democrats from pro-gun states eager to appease the gun lobby but reluctant to oppose President Obama.
"I don't think anybody is going to want to vote to hurt their perfect NRA rating, but if it's a 'no' vote that will cross the president, they might think twice," said Stuart Taylor, contributing editor at Newsweek and the National Journal who specializes on constitutional law and the Supreme Court. "I don't think the NRA threat will make a difference in her overall confirmation, but you may see some senators abstaining" from voting.
Eight Senate Democrats have NRA "A" ratings: Max Baucus and Jon Tester from Montana; Robert Casey from Pennsylvania; Jim Webb and Mark Warner from Virginia; Ben Nelson from Nebraska; Mark Begich from Alaska; and Tim Johnson from South Dakota. So far, none have publicly opposed Kagan.
"This is an important vote," said Cox. "It absolutely matters, and it will factor into our ratings and endorsements in the next election."