Congress wonders if this time will be different for gun control
Posted February 20, 2018 4:04 p.m. EST
(CNN) — In America, gun violence has become a reoccurring fact of life, and the response to it is even more predictable.
Following the tragedy last week in Parkland, Florida, the reaction has followed a familiar pattern: a slew of well-meaning tweets and condolences followed by victim outrage and action. But after Congress did nothing in the wake of Newtown, after Las Vegas or after the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, it's unclear if there is any political will to take action after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
"What we need is congressional leaders, specifically in my party, to allow some of these bills to come to the floor for debate," Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Republican from Florida, said on ABC's "This Week." "There are a lot of Republicans who are prepared to support reasonable, common-sense gun safety laws, new laws, stronger laws that protect rights for responsible citizens, people who are responsible gun owners, but will prevent those who want to do harm to innocent people from obtaining these weapons."
In recent days, the window for opportunity has opened by a crack. President Donald Trump -- who campaigned as an ally of the National Rifle Association -- has signaled a willingness to re-examine some of the country's gun laws. But the contours of any action will be narrow, and if past incidences are any indication, there's little time to act. Capitol Hill Republicans facing a tough midterm political environment may be reluctant to take action on a controversial issue unless the President uses his bully pulpit to sell a narrow change to the American public.
On Friday, Trump spoke with Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, about legislation the senator has already introduced that would further compel state and federal agencies to enter information into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System that could halt dangerous individuals from buying guns. Cornyn sponsored the legislation last year with Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who's a leader on the gun issue. Murphy's state was devastated by the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, which left 26 dead -- 20 of them young children.
The legislation has stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee ,where it hasn't been taken up for a vote. In the House, a similar piece of legislation to fix NICS passed in December, but only when it was paired with a measure to loosen gun restrictions that allowed holders of concealed carry permits to legally travel with their weapons out of state.
That proposal, which appears to currently have the best chance in clearing Congress, stops far short of efforts just five years ago to dramatically overhaul the country's gun laws. Democrats argue those efforts are the bare minimum.
"Interesting morning. Two quick thoughts: 1/ Trump's support for the FixNICS Act, my bill with @JohnCornyn, is another sign the politics of gun violence are shifting rapidly. 2/ No one should pretend this bill alone is an adequate response to this epidemic," Murphy tweeted after learning Trump was open to some changes to gun laws.
In 2013, the Senate voted on a package of gun laws that would have expanded background checks and banned the specific kinds of semiautomatic weapons that have been used in many of the mass shootings in recent years. Those efforts failed even with a Democratic majority in the Senate, even with Democratic President Barack Obama's full support and even with the parents of Sandy Hook victims lobbying congressional offices for weeks ahead of the vote.
A different time?
This time the conversation about guns in America is happening in large part because survivors at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are demanding it, but whether changes will be made to national gun laws is still very uncertain.
"Maybe the adults have got used to saying, 'It is what it is,' " said Emma Gonzalez, a student at the high school. "But if us students have learned anything, it's that if you don't study, you will fail. And in this case if you actively do nothing, people continually end up dead."
On Wednesday, Trump is expected to hold a listening session with students and teachers. But the impact of those conversations and the longevity of the national debate are uncertain. Touching gun legislation can be contentious and if the President wants changes, he will have to consistently throw his political weight behind them no matter the pressure ahead.
Sources inside the White House have been clear that Trump is feeling the pressure. The President spent the weekend at his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, watching critical coverage and hearing from guests who felt strongly about the gun issue. CNN reported Monday that one such conversation happened over dinner with frequent Fox News contributor Geraldo Rivera, who argued to Trump that it might be worth raising the legal age to purchase guns like the AR-15 from 18 to 21. Trump also met with House Speaker Paul Ryan in Florida, where they discussed the Parkland shooting.
But it's uncertain how much appetite there is on Capitol Hill. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, has been clear that finding a solution that would prevent gun violence is complicated.
"If we do something, it should be something that works. And the struggle up to this point has been that most of the proposals that have been offered would not have prevented, not just yesterday's tragedy, but any of those in recent history," Rubio said last week.
He added that "just because these proposals would not have prevented these does not mean that we therefore raise our hands and say, 'Therefore, there's nothing we can do.' "
During an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" over the weekend, Sen. James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma, stuck with the notion that guns weren't the problem as much as who is able to get a gun.
"The problem is not owning an AR-15, is the person that owns it. Again, you not go back to the how of what particular weapon is chosen, it's the why," Lankford said. "I have individuals in my neighborhood that own an AR-15. That doesn't make it a dangerous neighborhood or them dangerous individuals. It's the individual themself (that becomes) the issue, not the weapon that they're holding."
A Las Vegas shooting and a short-lived gun debate
In instance after instance, Congress has shown little appetite to tackle gun legislation. Even in the wake of the worst mass shooting in modern American history at a concert in Las Vegas last fall, where 58 were killed and almost 500 were injured, a similar national conversation emerged and then quickly faded.
The range of those talks was also narrow. There was little discussion about banning semiautomatic weapons like the ones Stephen Paddock used from his 32nd floor Mandalay Bay hotel room. Instead, there was a more nuanced discussion about banning a device few had even heard of before the Las Vegas rampage: bump fire stocks, also known as bump stocks, a small attachment that when placed on a semiautomatic weapon allows the gun to fire more like an automatic weapon -- extracting even more carnage.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers were surprised, stunned that such a device existed. Automatic weapons are banned. How could a device exist that allowed semiautomatic weapons to fire more like illegal guns?
Conservatives like Cornyn recommended that the Senate's Judiciary Committee hold hearings on bump stocks. Some Republicans even called to ban them. But in the end and after a hearing, lawmakers backed off such a legislative push and concluded the change should be handled administratively at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The ATF -- months after the Las Vegas shooting -- reviewed whether it has such authority, and the White House indicated Tuesday that that review had been completed and its results would be announced in upcoming days.
On Tuesday Trump said he'd directed the Department of Justice to review the use of bump stocks and "propose regulations that ban all devices that turn legal weapons into machine guns."
"Just a few moments ago I signed a memo directing the attorney general to propose regulations that ban all devices that turn legal weapons into machine guns," Trump said at a Medal of Valor event at the White House.