After Orlando, Senate Prepares to Vote on New Gun Limits

Will We See Compromise on Gun Control in Congress?
  • Heart of dispute is whether attorney general can block sales
  • Republican leaders insist courts approve no-buy list first

A searing battle between U.S. Senate Democrats and Republicans over gun control and counterterrorism appears headed for a showdown next week with dueling amendments -- and little expectation of any actual lawmaking.

After Democrats held the Senate floor Wednesday for nearly 15 hours of speeches demanding curbs on gun purchases, it’s unclear whether any senators have shifted on a central divide between the leading proposals: whether the government must first get a court order to block a gun sale, a process Democrats insist will allow terrorists to get guns.

The Senate is setting up to vote Monday on several gun-related amendments to a spending bill that funds the Justice Department and other agencies, said the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, John Cornyn of Texas. Those votes would be the chamber’s first response to the massacre in Orlando, Florida, where 49 people were killed. 

The No. 3 Democrat, Chuck Schumer of New York, and Cornyn made clear in separate remarks to reporters that the parties remain deeply divided.

Schumer said Democrats are insisting that the government should have the power to put people suspected of terrorist ties on a "no-buy" list, with the burden on the person on the list to appeal for the right to purchase a weapon. A proposal by Dianne Feinstein of California, which has the full backing of the Obama administration, would prevent people who have been on the terrorism watch list within the past five years from being able to purchase a gun.

Cornyn and many Republicans call that approach unconstitutional, and instead would require the government to get a court to sign off on a no-buy order in advance

Shifting Momentum

Many Democrats say they think the momentum is shifting their favor on guns after the shooting spree at a gay nightclub in Orlando, where the gunman pledged allegiance to the Islamic State terrorist group, or ISIS. 

Vulnerable Republican senators, including Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Rob Portman of Ohio, began to signal openness to compromise. In addition, Senate Democrats were buoyed by their Connecticut colleague Chris Murphy’s marathon session on the Senate floor, which they say has galvanized their supporters.

"When are they going to learn, our Republican colleagues, that the world has changed, and there are lone wolves inspired by ISIS who can get guns who are going to rip America apart until we get something done?" Schumer said.

Democrats are also insisting on expanding background checks so would-be terrorists can’t just bypass the system by going to a gun show.

But some Republicans decried what they say is a rush to vote. Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said he sees little chance of something passing if the votes are held Monday night. Many senators don’t understand the proposals or the various lists the government uses to screen people who might be engaged in terrorism, he said.

“This is unfortunately about politics Monday night, not finding a solution that will work for our country,” Corker said. “The question is, do people really want to solve this problem or keep an issue alive for the November election.”

‘A Fake’

Schumer slammed a revised plan offered by Cornyn that would give law enforcement three business days to get a court order to block a gun sale.

"Every terrorist will get a gun," Schumer said. "If the FBI had that evidence, they would have arrested the person to begin with. It’s a fake. It’s a way for them to say they are doing something when they are doing nothing."

Cornyn insisted that’s not true, and that under the Constitution, the government must have the burden of proof to take someone’s rights away.

"Observing constitutional rights for American citizens is not a smokescreen," he said. Cornyn added that it’s "simply un-American" that anybody could be "denied their constitutional rights without due process of law, and without the government coming forward and establishing probable cause."

Due Process

On the House side, Speaker Paul Ryan indirectly criticized the Democratic approach.

"If you have a quick idea in the heat of the moment, that says let’s take away a person’s rights without their due process, we’re going to stand up and defend the Constitution," he told reporters during a news conference Thursday.

But he did offer support for Cornyn’s proposal, which he said "essentially codifies what the FBI already does." House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul of Texas also said House Republicans are considering Cornyn’s idea.

Cornyn said he was hopeful more Democrats would back his amendment than when it came up for a vote last December, because he dropped an unrelated controversial provision on immigration.

No-Fly List

Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, said she is seeking bipartisan support for her own gun-control amendment, which she will try to offer next week, that would try to carve out a middle ground. She declined to say who has signed on so far, but said she took suggestions from Republicans Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democrat Bill Nelson of Florida.

Instead of using the wider terror watch list, she said her proposal would ban gun sales to those on the much narrower "no-fly" list and the “selectee” list. That second list consists of individuals who are subjected to more extensive airport screening because there is reason to believe they may be engaged in terrorism, but not enough evidence to bar them from flying.

“In both cases, these lists are small subsets of the far-larger terrorist screening database, which has over a million records and tens of thousands of Americans on it,” Collins said. “So this is a much-smaller list. The problem with using the broader database is that it contains unverified” allegations, she said.

If someone is on the no-fly or the selectee list, they would not be able to purchase a gun under the proposal, but could appeal the decision to an appellate court, she said. If they win, the government must pay attorneys fees for the plaintiff.

In addition, if someone is no longer on either of these lists, but they were at any time during the previous five years, a gun purchase can take place but the FBI is notified. 

“That would undoubtedly, in most cases, result in putting you back on the list and under investigation,” Collins said.

The shooter in the Orlando case, Omar Mateen, was never on the no-fly list. The Los Angeles Times reported Thursday that he had been on the selectee list while he was investigated in 2013 and 2014. Mateen was also on the broader terror watch list during that period, but was removed after an FBI investigation turned up no evidence that he was a threat.

FISA Court

Republicans are also discussing a separate compromise proposal by Toomey, who is facing a tough re-election battle. Toomey’s plan would create a no-buy list that would have to be pre-cleared by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. 

But Schumer said that approach would take decades to get every person on the terror watch list onto the no-buy list.

Republican Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina said more proposals could emerge next week.

“We have to try to find consensus," he said. "People have to put the political extremes at the door and try to come up with something that we’re convinced will make it far less likely that something like Orlando ever happens again.”

In the coming days, Cornyn said he hopes to "pivot" the discussion from guns to fighting terrorism, saying that if President Barack Obama had crushed Islamic State by now, people wouldn’t be pledging allegiance to it.

Mike Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, is an advocate of assault-weapon restrictions and serves on the advisory board of Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control group.

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