In the Senate, little sense of change on guns

The nation is reeling after a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School ...

Posted: Feb 27, 2018 10:45 AM
Updated: Feb 27, 2018 10:45 AM

The nation is reeling after a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 17 people in Parkland, Florida. But if there is a feeling that something is about to change on gun control in the rest of the country, it's not yet palpable on Capitol Hill.

As lawmakers filed in after a weeklong recess, Republicans and some Democrats appeared reluctant to wade in too publicly or too quickly on a topic as contentious and politically rife as gun control.

"I don't think we need more gun control. I think we need better idiot control," Sen. John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana said when asked what might come next on Capitol Hill.

Even modest proposals quickly hit roadblocks Monday. A plan to incentivize states and federal agencies to enter more records into the country's gun background check system known as Fix NICs seemed too little for Democrats while Republicans maintained it was the best first step they could offer. Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah, blocked the bill from coming up under a fast-track process in the Senate.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, meanwhile, released a statement Monday afternoon calling any plan to just vote on Fix NICs without more robust proposals "abject failure" and a "dereliction of our duty."

"Democrats believe that, at a minimum, the congressional response to the Parkland shooting should include universal background check legislation that would close the gun show and internet sales loopholes that allow guns to fall into the wrong hands," Schumer said.

But some Republicans weren't even ready to accept the narrow plan to add more data to the background check system.

"I basically believe the Second Amendment is important to all of us and how do we work within the Second Amendment, OK?" Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby said.

In the week Congress was gone, the country began the most robust dialogue it has had on gun control since the aftermath of a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 with governors and even a handful of Republican members of Congress publicly re-examining past positions on high-capacity magazines, background checks and the age at which an individual can purchase a rifle.

"There's always political risk, but at the same time, we're talking about the lives of kids and innocent men and women and people," said Republican Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, in town for a gathering of the nation's governors. "We need to have this difficult conversation and get it out in the light of day."

But on Monday evening it seemed little, if anything, would change in the way of an appetite to tackle gun control on Capitol Hill.

Asked if he supported raising the age that individuals could purchase rifles from 18 to 21 or banning bump fire stocks, devices that make it possible to fire semiautomatic weapons like automatic ones, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah said, "I'm not very enthused about those. "

And on the Fix NICS proposal?

"I have trouble with anything in that area because I've always been a strong proponent of the right to keep and bear arms," Hatch said.

And it wasn't just Republicans who were divided. The Democratic Party, which has 10 senators who are up for re-election in 2018 in states that Trump won and a number of senators on the left of the debate who may run for President in 2020, was trying to find its own agreement.

Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat up for re-election in 2018 in Montana, said he thought there was still room for debate on guns.

"It depends on where the gun debate goes," he said when asked if he worried about the effects it might have on red state Democrats. "I think keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, mentally ill folks, terrorists, that's solid ground. There are not law-abiding citizens, they ought not have the same rights as law abiding citizens, all right?"

Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia up for re-election in 2018, argued that in the era of Trump, he thought there was even more room to act. He argued the Senate should re-examine a bill he sponsored in 2013 that would have expanded background checks to gun sales at gun shows and on the internet.

"Common sense still prevails. Manchin-Toomey was common sense back then," Manchin said about his push for the background check bill in 2013. "The reason we were not able to get the support we needed was because they were afraid President Obama would go further. Well, they're not having that fear with President Trump, so if he wants a good piece of legislation that protects Second Amendment rights, this one protects it better than any legislation that's out there and it's been vetted for five years. So we'll have to see what the President wants to do. It's really up to him."

All eyes are on President Donald Trump and whether he -- who pushed to make changes to some of the country's gun laws last week including raising the age for buying rifles and enforcing background checks -- will continue that effort. Over the weekend, Trump spoke over the phone with House Speaker Paul Ryan about the gun issue. And Trump told reporters Monday he lunched with National Rifle Association leaders Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox over the weekend.

Monday morning, Trump told governors at the White House that the NRA was on their side.

"Don't worry about the NRA, they're on our side," Trump said. "Half of you are so afraid of the NRA, there's nothing to be afraid of."

"And you know what? If they're not with you, we have to fight 'em every once in a while, that's OK. They're doing what they think is right," he said.

Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida who'd spent the previous week with victims from the Parkland shooting, said Monday he'd seen a sea change happening in Florida.

But in Washington? he was asked.

"I can't tell you that," he said. "I don't know. Ask me that question in a couple of days."

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