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Gun control: So far, just words

For a congressional debate that has shown little movement in recent years, it's significant that Republican lawmakers -- including some of the most conservative and avid hunters and gun owners -- have shown openness the past 24 hours to doing something on bump-fire stocks.

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Phil Mattingly
Lauren Fox (CNN)
(CNN) — For a congressional debate that has shown little movement in recent years, it's significant that Republican lawmakers -- including some of the most conservative and avid hunters and gun owners -- have shown openness the past 24 hours to doing something on bump-fire stocks.

But so far it's just words.

Here's where things stand on gun control:

Why it's an interesting signal:

As congressional observers have seen repeatedly, these shootings tend to push both sides into their respective corners making even the conversation short-lived and vitriolic.

One Democratic aide told CNN, "They don't have the guts to sit down and have a real conversation about this."

Compare that to a Republican aide, who told CNN: "Democrats automatically overreach and ask for the world, so our guys get their backs up and just want to fight. It's impossible."

That, at least on the surface, isn't happening yet on the bump stock issue.

Today's read:

An excellent rundown of all the players -- and some of their surprising answers -- on the bump stock issue Wednesday from CNN's congressional team.

Why Republicans are (very slightly) cracking open the door:

Because automatic weapons are illegal (or those that were grandfathered in a post-1986 ban are so cost prohibitive that they've all but disappeared). That's been accepted policy, even for most gun advocates for decades. Now, it's important to note that bump stocks don't turn semi-automatic guns into automatic. They are an entirely legal modification that greatly increases the rate of fire, and as Las Vegas showed, seemingly mimics an automatic firearm. Lawmakers have clearly found that jarring.

See the quotes in the above story, which are all really instructive to the current thinking -- one of the most interesting things about this is lawmakers, even the avid hunters, genuinely have no idea what bump stocks are. They are just learning and they don't like what they see. At least on its face.

And perhaps most significantly, House Speaker Paul Ryan told Hugh Hewitt on his MSNBC show that the issue was "clearly something we need to look into."

"Look, I didn't even know what they were until this week, and I'm an avid sportsman," Ryan said in a short clip that aired Thursday. "So I think we're quickly coming up to speed with what this is. Fully automatic weapons have been banned for a long time. Apparently this allows you to take a semiautomatic and turn it into a fully automatic. So clearly that's something we need to look into."

Another important point: One of the biggest GOP criticisms in the gun debate is that the various proposals wouldn't have done anything to stop or change the specific mass shooting that sparked the debate. The bump stock issue is different -- Republicans see it as legitimately playing a role. So they are willing to have the conversation instead of reflexively yelling "overreach."

A cracked door does not equal legislation ... or even a hearing

Senate judiciary committee Chairman Chuck Grassley's response to CNN regarding his conversation with Republican Whip Sen. John Cornyn, is important: "He said it might be a subject for a hearing, but he also told me that we should wait until after we get the police investigation so we know what we're having a hearing about."

Shorter: We'll see. I'm not committed to anything right now. And if Grassley isn't committed, then nothing -- hearing, legislation, etc. -- will happen.

Quotes that underscore how quickly optimism could dissipate, from the above story:

"I'm a Second Amendment man. I'm not for any gun control. None," said Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama when asked if he'd be open to any regulations or bans on the devices.

"I am very skeptical about legislation that attempts to ban features and particular guns," said Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. "I haven't looked at it, but I'm skeptical."

Toomey was the co-sponsor to expanded background check legislation in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre and still supports that to this day. His comments on concerns related to banning features are noteworthy for that reason, and that they highlight concern about a perceived slippery slope when it comes to banning anything related to guns.

Reality check

Here's where a bit of a reality check -- or several -- comes into play about the future of this conversation debate, per several senior GOP sources:

The policy here isn't as clear cut as it appears. Banning bump stocks doesn't change the fact that bump fire isn't difficult to replicate, even through lower cost options (it's basically physics). So how do you draft legislation to address that? Too targeted and you essentially create new loopholes. Too ambiguous and it will be rejected by Republicans who see it as nothing but an effort to extend the ban further through regulation. Nothing will shut the door on any effort faster than Republicans thinking language is too broad and open to interpretation. The House and Senate bills to ban bump stocks are all Democrat-sponsored only. For something related to guns to move through a GOP-controlled House and Senate, it's going to need a big name (or many) Republican sponsor who takes a lead role in pushing for the bill. We're still not there yet. Calls for a hearing does not a hearing make. Support for a general concept does not equal support for legislative language. The existence of a bill doesn't mean it's going to get a floor vote. This seems simple, but it may be the most important point: this is very clearly not on the GOP fall agenda. Simple fact is there is one key priority -- tax reform -- and everything the Senate plans to do will revolve around ensuring nothing gets in the way of that, especially a toxic political debate on guns.

Shorter way of saying:

This has been an interesting couple of days listening to Republican members grapple with an issue most simply weren't aware of. But the expectation that there will be some legislative action on this issue anytime soon is very likely wrong. If it happens, it will be forced organically, likely against the wishes of GOP leaders. That's entirely possible, but being skeptical of the idea that overwhelming momentum exists to push something into law in the near term would be smart.

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