Vulnerable Republicans are showing signs of compromising on gun restrictions as Democrats push hard for provisions to bar suspected terrorists from purchasing weapons such as those used to kill 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando.
Three Republican senators in tough re-election fights -- Rob Portman of Ohio, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin -- said yesterday that the Senate should try to agree on a mechanism to keep guns out of the hands of suspected terrorists.
“I support the concept” of barring suspected terrorists “who are legitimately on the watch list” from getting guns, Portman told reporters. “There is a consensus around this place that if you are on a terrorist watch list you shouldn’t get a gun, so let’s try to figure it out.”
Ayotte told reporters that she favors “addressing people who are on the terror watch list” though it should be done “in a way that assures there is due process.” Johnson said Republicans are amenable to discussing the issue with Democrats “but they’ve got to be willing to work with us.”
“Obviously no Republican wants a terrorist to get access to a firearm, but there has to be some due process,” said Johnson.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said Democrats will push a provision to empower the attorney general to block firearms sales if she has a reasonable belief the guns would be used in a terrorist attack.
Reid told reporters he intends force a vote on the proposal as an amendment to H.R. 2578, the legislative vehicle for the Senate’s Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill that’s being debated this week. He didn’t specify how he would force consideration of the gun amendment. One option: Democrats could threaten a filibuster of the bill to force a deal.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell yesterday described his conference as open to considering proposals by FBI Director James Comey, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and others in law enforcement because “nobody wants terrorists to have firearms.” Comey and Johnson are scheduled to brief senators tomorrow on the FBI’s investigation into the Orlando massacre.
Republicans would “try to work with the Democrats to try to come up with something that’s actually a solution,” Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas told reporters. But he accused Democrats of “trying to opportunistically use this as a way to advance their gun-control debate rather than solve the problem.”
Portman, Ayotte and Johnson were among 53 Republicans who voted against a proposal by California Democrat Dianne Feinstein to bar suspected terrorists from purchasing guns in December.
North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp was the lone Democrat who voted with Republicans to defeat that amendment. It was offered in the wake of the Dec. 2 San Bernardino, California, shooting in which a gunman who pledged allegiance to ISIL and his wife killed 14 people and injured 21 others. The FBI has treated it as an act of terror.
Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, perhaps the most vulnerable Republican seeking re-election in November, was the only member of his party to support that measure.
Portman and other Republicans supported an alternative by Cornyn that would delay the sale for 72 hours before requiring the Justice Department to obtain an injunction by convincing a court that there was probable cause to believe the would-be purchaser was a suspected or known terrorist.
The Ohio lawmaker said he still prefers Cornyn’s approach because it affords more “due process” for people who may be erroneously on a watch list. Portman noted that the Orlando gunman, Omar Mateen, was not on the FBI ’s watch list when he purchased the guns he used to storm the gay night club.
Democrats argue that Cornyn’s proposal would require the government to meet an unrealistic standard of proof and could compromise counter-terrorism investigations.
Democrats denied they were pushing the amendment as an attempt to revive the broader debate over gun control. New York’s Charles Schumer, the No. 3 Senate Democrat, told reporters Monday that the watch-list proposal “is the most relevant” response to the Orlando shootings.
“This is the logical and first and most likely to pass step,” he said during a conference call with reporters Democrats held to promote Feinstein’s proposal. Schumer expressed hope that the Orlando shooting will force Republican “to see the light and not just bow in obeisance to the NRA, whose positions on these issues are extreme.”