Despite shootings, gun law push stalls as GOP waits on Trump
WASHINGTON — Congress faces renewed public pressure for tougher gun laws after several mass shootings in recent weeks, yet as lawmakers return from their August recess, the prospects for significant action are limited.
While House Democrats have already passed legislation to expand background checks and are considering broader measures, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who’s consistently opposed new gun laws, has made clear nothing will move without a clear signal from President Donald Trump.
Trump has been ambivalent. After 31 people were killed in mass shootings in Texas and Ohio over one weekend at the beginning of August, Trump said he had “an appetite” for bolstering background checks. This week, as he has in the past, he backpedaled.
“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,” he told reporters Wednesday at the White House.
The uncertainty in Washington comes as external pressure is growing. Poll after poll shows overwhelming support for requiring background checks for all gun buyers. A Quinnipiac University Poll conducted Aug. 21-26 found 93 percent of respondents — including 89 percent of Republicans — back more extensive background checks. Six in 10 said they support banning the military-style semi-automatic rifles like those used in recent mass killings, including one at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, on Aug. 3 in which 22 people died.
Walmart Inc., which for years was among America’s biggest sellers of handguns and assault-style weapons, announced this past week it would no longer sell ammunition for such firearms once their stocks are depleted. Chief Executive Officer Doug McMillon, in a statement to employees, reiterated his call for Congress to debate an assault weapons ban and said background checks should be strengthened.
The world’s biggest retailer was joined by grocery-store chain Kroger Co. and drugstore chains Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. and CVS Health Corp. in asking customers to refrain from openly carrying firearms in their stores, despite moves in some Republican-controlled states, including Texas, to loosen restrictions on toting weapons in public.
Gun control also is taking on significance in the 2020 battle for control of the White House, the Senate and the House. Notably, almost all of the leading Democratic presidential candidates are calling for a reinstatement of the 1994 federal ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004, including front-runner and former Vice President Joe Biden as well as Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.
Michael Bloomberg, owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, founded and helps fund Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit that advocates for universal background checks and other gun violence prevention measures.
The Democrat-led House voted in February to expand criminal background checks to would-be gun buyers on the internet and at gun shows. Another approved bill would prevent a gun sale from going forward if a background check isn’t finished within three days.
House Democrats also plan hearings on other proposals in the coming weeks, including a ban on high capacity ammunition magazines that allow rapid firing without reloading.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York this past week called on McConnell to allow a Senate vote on the House-passed background legislation after it was learned that the gunman in an Aug. 31 shooting spree in Midland and Odessa, Texas, purchased his weapon from a private seller, avoiding a background check he would have failed.
“If the House-passed background checks bill would have been signed into law, this tragedy could have been avoided,” Schumer said in a statement on Tuesday. He said the Senate should “close these loopholes without delay.”
McConnell, though, has been unmoved.
“I said several weeks ago that if the president took a position on a bill so that we knew we would actually be making a law and not just having serial votes, I’d be happy to put it on the floor,” McConnell said in a Tuesday interview on the Hugh Hewitt radio show.
Trump has continued a dialogue with Republican and Democratic lawmakers about legislative proposals without committing to a course of action. He met Thursday at the White House after an unrelated ceremony with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who is co-sponsor with Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania of legislation to include private sales in the background check system. A person familiar with the meeting said no decisions were reached.
A version of the Manchin-Toomey legislation was blocked in the Senate in 2013.
There are some early signs of possible bipartisan consensus around encouraging more states to adopt measures known as red flag or extreme risk protection order laws that remove guns from potentially dangerous people. Sens. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, and Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, are pushing legislation that would create a federal grant program to encourage more states to adopt such laws.
Another proposal with some bipartisan support would require federal authorities to alert state law enforcement if someone is caught lying about a criminal record to obtain a firearm.
Tightening background checks is one step that garners the most public support, though gun rights advocates have been wary. Toomey said Sept. 1 on ABC’s “This Week” that he has spoken directly with Trump “repeatedly” about background check legislation, and spoke favorably about the talks between White House staff and congressional aides. Still, Toomey said he couldn’t guess what the president will do and can’t guarantee any outcome.
“I’m not sure where this all ends,” he said. “But the president is very interested, I remain very interested in measures that would make it harder for people who shouldn’t have guns to get guns. And, you know, we’re going to — we’re going to take a very serious run at it.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said last week that he’s also spoken with Trump and is heartened by the fact that both sides are at least talking.
“The White House is at the table and I continue to see a path where good legislation emerges that the president supports and can pass the Senate,” he said in a statement. “Maybe we won’t get there, but it’s good news that we’re still sitting down and talking about legislation.”
(Polly Mosendz contributed to this report.)
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