Congress Struggles To Break Familiar Pattern Of Inaction On Gun Violence

on February 27, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Win McNamee/Getty Images North America

Once again, following yet another mass shooting, members of Congress are meeting with survivors and introducing a flurry of bills aimed at combating gun violence. But while some lawmakers insist that it’s a “new day” on Capitol Hill, citing the activism of the Stoneman Douglass High School students that has galvanized the country, others predict that this push will end like those after gun massacres in Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, and the Pulse nightclub—with inaction.

Even as Delta Airlines and a host of other major corporations distance themselves from the NRA, and Dick’s Sporting Goods moves to end sales of assault rifles in their stores nationwide, some lawmakers are hesitant to take action and others cannot agree on a path forward.

Complicating Congress’ already entrenched resistance to gun control legislation is a mercurial President, who one days calls for standing up to the NRA and the next walks back his support for gun control bills, and a familiar struggle between Democrats and Republicans about how to begin the debate. Meanwhile, several Republican lawmakers remain staunchly opposed to even the most modest policy changes.

Asked if he saw any appetite among his colleagues for passing a gun-related bill in the coming weeks, Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) told TPM flatly, “No, I don’t.”

Some supporters of gun control were equally pessimistic. Asked if he’s seeing any change in his colleagues’ resistance to passing new restrictions, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) sighed and responded: “Not yet.”

Among the ideas currently circulating in Congress are proposals to ban “bump stocks” like those used in the Las Vegas concert shooting, raise the minimum age of certain weapons purchases to 21, block people on the federal “No Fly” list from buying a gun, and encourage states and federal agencies to improve reporting to the FBI’s background check database.

That last proposal, co-sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Chris Murphy (D-CT), has the most support in the Senate, but Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) blocked it from coming to the floor on Monday night, arguing that the reporting requirements could violate the due process rights of aspiring gun owners. Many Senate Democrats are also wary of moving forward with the “Fix NICS” bill, which could come to the floor later this week, and are instead pushing for universal background checks and other robust gun control measures.

Murphy told reporters Tuesday that his own bill was not enough, and to debate and pass only that measure would be “slamming the door in the face” of the Florida students who have been lobbying in their own state capitol and in DC for stricter gun control policies.

But alongside the Democratic senators who say the bill does not go far enough are a growing contingent of Republican senators who say it goes too far.

“I don’t have any certainty that this will help or solve the problem,” Kennedy told TPM, adding that he also opposes banning certain firearms and making it easier to confiscate weapons from those who exhibit behavioral red flags. “There are 15 million AR-15s in America. We had an assault weapons ban when Columbine happened. The man in Sandy Hook got the weapon from his mother.”

“There are some people in the world who aren’t sick, they’re just plain damn bad,” he continued. “I’m not talking about the mentally ill. I looked it up this morning and we have 8.5 million male high school students. How are we going to figure out a way to find out which one or ones has access to a weapon and is angry enough to kill his colleagues? It’s almost an impossible task if you live in an open society. Now, they could probably pull it off in China. But I don’t want to live like that.”

Several other Republicans agreed with Kennedy that no new gun policies are needed in the wake of the Parkland massacre.

“Enforce the laws we have on the books,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) told reporters. “These are horrible tragedies. We’d love to be able to do something, but you have to ask the question: would passing a piece of legislation that would infringe on people’s constitutional rights really do anything? That’s the hurdle.”

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., speaks with reporters in the Senate subway in the Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Prospects for gun control legislation are even more grim in the House. Pressed by reporters Tuesday morning on whether he will commit to holding votes on any bills, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) continually pivoted to talking about the “colossal break-down in the system locally”—referring to failures by police and federal agents to follow up on tips that the Florida school shooter was dangerous.  

Ryan also called for addressing “violence in our culture” but did not specify how he would do so. “That’s where we should focus our attention, without trying to take away a citizen’s rights,” he said. “Let me say this, we shouldn’t be banning guns for law-abiding citizens.” 

Asked again about a vote on a bill to strengthen background checks, Ryan demurred. “We’re waiting to see what the Senate can do, and we’ll find out what the Senate can do, and address that then,” he said. 

President Trump is inviting lawmakers to the White House on Wednesday to discuss gun policy, and senators on both sides of the aisle say the President’s involvement in the debate could either make or break the chance of passing a bill.

“If the President got behind a measure, it would be easier for Republicans to say yes,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told reporters Tuesday. “If you had presidential leadership, you could do more than what Cornyn and Murphy are talking about. And since the school shooting, he’s said some things that are encouraging, but whether he follows through with it, I don’t know.”

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