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Congress Stalled as GOP Waits for Trump’s Move on Gun Control

September 10, 2019, 11:01 PM UTC

Democrats and Republicans remain stalemated over gun control measures, as a debate over how to address last month’s three mass shootings gets off to a sharply partisan start with no clear direction from President Donald Trump.

The House Judiciary Committee met on Tuesday to advance three measures, including legislation to ban high-capacity ammunition magazines that allow rapid firing without reloading. Yet the GOP-controlled Senate still hasn’t acted on legislation the House passed in February to expand federal criminal background checks of gun purchasers, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gave little indication that he’s willing to consider new proposals.

McConnell said he’s waiting to hear from the White House what sort of gun legislation Trump would be willing to sign.

“I can’t handicap the outcome,” McConnell told reporters after the Senate GOP’s weekly private lunch. “We’re waiting for something we know, if it passed, would actually become law.”

Republican Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota said after the meeting that he has no idea what the president is willing to support. “And that’s kind of the issue,” he added.

Trump met with Republican congressional leaders on the fall agenda later in the day. Afterward, McConnell told reporters, “I don’t have any announcements to make.”

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said the president has a “historic opportunity” if he were to back universal background checks, and he urged Senate Republicans to press him to do so.

National Rifle Association

The White House and a bipartisan group of senators have been talking about legislation since 38 people in Texas and Ohio were killed in three mass shootings in August. Trump continues to waver on what he will support — particularly on additional background checks opposed by the National Rifle Association.

GOP hesitation to get ahead of the president on gun control shows how politically difficult the issue has become for lawmakers trying to maintain support for the Second Amendment while still responding to public opinion shifting in favor of some limits on gun ownership. Failure to act on broadly popular measures could hurt Republicans seeking re-election in 2020.

The partisan lines were clear in the Judiciary panel’s debate on so-called red-flag legislation. The idea of keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals generally has bipartisan support. But that breaks down on the details.

The Democratic-sponsored bill would encourage states to adopt laws that can allow for temporary firearms restrictions by state courts for up to 30 days, then up to a year if after a full hearing with the firearm owner a court determines they pose a danger. In a change by panel Chairman Jerrold Nadler that is expected to be approved late Tuesday, it also would allow federal courts to issue protective orders.

Representative Chris Collins, the panel’s top Republican, said the approach Democrats offered “may seem like a common-sense measure,” but it has “serious due-process problems.” He said it allows a low standard of “reasonable cause” that someone could cause harm before their weapons would be taken away. He said the burden of proof should be higher. Those objections were echoed by other Republicans on the committee.

‘Hell to Pay’

Senate and House Democrats separately are demanding that McConnell allow a Senate vote on the House’s bipartisan bills that would expand background checks to include transactions on the internet and at gun shows.

“The legislation is the quickest way to save American lives,” Schumer said. He said the proposal is “right at the intersection of what is effective and what can pass.”

“We’re not going to take ‘no’ for an answer,” added House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She said Republicans will have “hell to pay” if they don’t allow a vote on House legislation, including a proposal to bar a gun sale from going forward if a background check isn’t finished within three days.

McConnell on Tuesday dismissed the move as a “stunt” because he said Trump would veto the measure.

Trump’s messages are mixed. After 31 people were killed in two mass shootings in Texas and Ohio over one weekend at the beginning of August, Trump said there was “a great appetite” for bolstering background checks. But he backpedaled last week, even after an Aug. 31 shooting spree in Midland and Odessa, Texas, where an assailant killed seven people with a weapon bought from a private seller, avoiding a background check he would have failed.

“If you look at background checks, and if you look at some of even the more severe and comprehensive ideas that are being put forward, it wouldn’t have stopped any of the last few years’ worth of these mass shootings,” the president told reporters Sept. 4 at the White House, contradicting reports about the Odessa shooting.

Majority Support

Public pressure is growing for some type of action. A Monmouth University poll released Monday showed 83% of American adults support background checks for all gun purchasers including private sales, 62% support a national gun ownership registry, and 75% back “red flag” laws that let authorities take guns away from someone who is a threat to themselves or others.

The poll found that 56% back banning the sale of assault weapons, while 38% are opposed. A mandatory buyback of assault weapons now in private hands was opposed by 53%, while 43% support it. The Aug. 16-20 poll of 800 adults had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Democrats on the House Judiciary panel have the votes to approve their three new measures, which would then go to the full House floor. In addition to the ban on high-capacity magazines, the proposals include a bill that would provide grants to states that adopt red flag laws and another that would prohibit those convicted of hate crimes from possessing firearms. The red flag approach has some bipartisan support in both chambers.

Trump has discussed options with Republican and Democratic lawmakers without committing to a course of action. He met last Thursday at the White House with Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who along with Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania is sponsoring legislation to include private sales in the background check system. The Senate blocked a version of that bill in 2013.

There is still some resistance to that measure among Republicans. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, a member of McConnell’s leadership team, said Monday he believes the Senate has “moved on” from that legislation and there are other solutions to consider.

Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat taking part in the negotiations, said an expansion of background checks is a key test for the seriousness of the president’s eventual proposal. He told reporters his sense is that Republicans wouldn’t mind Trump backing it because the politics have swung against them on the issue.

Murphy said he’s been encouraged that the White House is still talking.

“They still want to try to work this out,” he said. “They’re not ready to walk away; I’m not ready to walk away yet.”

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