WASHINGTON—Following back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, this month, lawmakers are debating the best legislative response to gun violence. But political posturing is already threatening to derail compromise.
Proposals for increased gun control include universal background checks, “red flag” laws that temporarily confiscate firearms from dangerous individuals, a crackdown on straw purchases of guns, a ban on semiautomatic firearms or large-capacity magazines, and making domestic terrorism a federal offense.
Without signaling his support for a specific proposal, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told a radio show in his home state that gun control legislation will be “front and center” once Congress returns to Washington from its August recess on Sept. 9.
In February, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would establish background-check requirements for nearly all firearm transfers. Federal law requires licensed dealers to complete background checks, but the rule does not cover some online purchases, sales at gun shows, private sales, or transfers. The bill would have exempted loans and gifts between family members. It earned the support of only eight House Republicans. The White House said it would veto the legislation, and the Senate never brought it to a vote.
Now, some moderate Republicans are pushing for a narrower version of the bill. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, wants a background check bill that would exempt gun transfers paired with a red flag law and a crackdown on straw gun purchases, which occur when someone buys a gun for someone else.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he’s working with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., on red flag legislation. Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., drafted a bill to make domestic terrorism a federal crime to give federal law enforcement officers the tools they need to crack down on offenders.
Republicans will have a hard time passing any proposal that doesn’t have White House support. “It’s tough to move on an issue as difficult and divisive as this is without executive engagement,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told Politico.
After the recent shootings, President Donald Trump tweeted that Congress should consider background checks, but in an address to the nation, he dropped mention of that and instead voiced support for red flag laws.
The president said Tuesday that McConnell “wants to do background checks. I do too, and I think a lot of Republicans do. … I don’t know, frankly, that the Democrats will get us there.” McConnell has not yet publicly voiced support for background checks.
Even if Republicans can unify around a single gun control measure, it likely will have a limited effect on gun violence, Amy Swearer, a Heritage Foundation senior legal policy analyst with a focus on the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, told me. She pointed to a January 2019 Department of Justice survey that found among all state and federal prisoners convicted of firearm-related offenses, only 7 percent had purchased their gun under their own name from a licensed dealer. More than half had stolen the gun or obtained it from the black market.
“Essentially, people are only getting guns in a legal manner when they know there’s nothing that’s going to stop them in a background check,” Swearer said.
The last time the Senate took up expanding background checks was in 2014, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut. The legislation, proposed by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., failed to pass, with only four Republicans voting for it.