Congress Hits Same Hurdles on Guns as It Did on Immigration

Updated on
  • Seeking Agreement, Congress Stumbles Across Old Divisions
  • Trump still holds key to moving Republicans on divisive issue

Guns in America

The congressional reaction to the Florida school massacre is beginning to look a lot like its faltering response on immigration: Almost everyone agrees on a narrow policy solution that’s quickly getting burdened with controversial conditions imperiling passage.

Democrats and Republicans alike embrace strengthening the system of background checks for gun purchasers in the wake of a Feb. 14 shooting that left 17 dead at a high school in Parkland, Florida. But members of both parties want to couple it with legislative proposals they’ve been unsuccessfully pushing for years.

Virtually the same dynamic played out over attempts to pass legislation shielding from deportation immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Many Republicans, led by President Donald Trump, joined Democrats in pledging support for a solution. But in the end they insisted on additional provisions that Democrats refused to support, dooming passage.

With the gun measure, the outcome could hinge on whether Trump takes a similar approach. Trump is set to meet Wednesday with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to discuss how to proceed, a forum that could lead to his clearest statements on the matter. Trump has outlined several gun control measures he’s interested in pursuing and the White House says that he’ll make clear what legislation he supports by the end of the week.

‘Driving the Train’

John Thune

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

“Him weighing in probably matters quite a bit with members in terms of what he’d like to see done,” said Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Republican leader. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia said Trump will be “driving the train if he wants something to happen.”

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, an outspoken gun control advocate, urged his allies not to get their hopes up for immediate action. "I don’t know that this is the moment we’re going to get a breakthrough," he said in an interview.

As lawmakers move cautiously, some U.S. businesses have reacted quickly to the shooting. Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc., the biggest sporting-goods retailer in the U.S., said it’s immediately ending sales of assault-style rifles. “Thoughts and prayers are not enough” anymore, Dick’s CEO Edward Stack said in a statement Wednesday.

Some other companies that offer discounts to National Rifle Association members, including Delta Air Lines Inc. and United Continental Holdings Inc., have cut ties to the lobbying group after calls for a boycott proliferated on social media.

In the Senate, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is pushing a bill that would penalize federal agencies that fail to report relevant criminal records that would bar someone from purchasing a firearm to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The NRA, the biggest U.S. lobby for gun owners and manufacturers, said it backs the measure. Trump has suggested he’d support it.

But gun-rights advocates in the House last year passed their own version of the background check legislation paired with a requirement that permits to carry a concealed firearm be recognized across state lines, a top priority of the NRA that’s vehemently opposed by Democrats. House conservatives say they won’t go along with the Senate legislation unless it includes the concealed carry provision, but that doesn’t have enough support to pass in the Senate.

Linking Legislation

Trump hasn’t suggested that background checks legislation be linked with the concealed carry proposal. The NRA, which has influence among Republican lawmakers, said it would support a background-check bill without the gun permit addition. But the president also hasn’t put his weight behind any specific legislative response, though he has signaled support for tougher background checks, new age restrictions for buying some rifles and creating a system to prevent the mentally ill from having firearms.

Trump on Wednesday will discuss gun legislation with 17 lawmakers from both parties who have divergent views. The invitation list includes Senator Dianne Feinstein, of California, a Democrat who has long advocated stricter gun control and background check measures. Also invited is Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 3 House Republican, who was shot and seriously wounded last year at a congressional baseball practice. He’s said the government could have prevented the Florida shooting without new regulations.

Feinstein and a few other Democrats are trying to revive an expired federal ban on military-style semiautomatic rifles like the one used in Florida and in several other recent mass shootings and an effort to expand background checks to private gun transactions. Neither would have much chance of getting a vote, much less passing the Republican-controlled Congress.

Democrats, who initially thought Trump would support their approach on immigration, say they aren’t sure where Trump stands on the gun issue.

“Until President Trump puts to paper what he really wants, you never really know what he really wants,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said Tuesday. “We have learned that hard lesson over and over again. So I’m not yet encouraged.”

What’s Possible

Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican leader, argued against immediate action on concealed carry provisions as well as other more divisive ideas.

“Let’s do the art of the possible,” he said on the Senate floor Tuesday.

Conservatives have said House leaders promised they wouldn’t take up a background check bill that doesn’t include concealed carry. House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin on Tuesday said he’d wait to see what the Senate does before deciding how to proceed.

“We obviously think the Senate should take our whole bill, but if the Senate cannot do that, then we’ll discuss and cross that bridge when we get to it,” he told reporters.

‘Dead on Arrival’

A stand-alone measure on background checks is “dead on arrival” in the House, said Representative Joe Barton, a Texas Republican.

In the Senate, the demands of some conservatives are holding up the prospect of any quick consideration of the background checks legislation, co-sponsored by Cornyn and Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut.

Senator John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, criticized the notion of adding more information into a gun-purchase database he says is flawed.

"I don’t think it’s going to solve the problem with the database,” Kennedy said. “I also have due process concerns. I think if you’re going to send somebody’s name in to the database, they should be notified and have a right to say, ‘Hey, you’ve got the wrong person.’ I mean, you’re taking away somebody’s constitutional right."

Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, said Trump could help avoid a repeat of what’s unfolded with immigration.

"We thought he was going to take people on on the far right on the Dreamers and that didn’t really happen," she said. “It’s all up to him.”

Michael R. Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP, which operates Bloomberg News, serves as a member of Everytown for Gun Safety’s advisory board and is a donor to the group. Everytown for Gun Safety advocates for universal background checks and other gun control measures.

— With assistance by Anna Edgerton, and Sahil Kapur

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