Dems split on new gun control push

Greg Nash

Congressional Democrats are divided on whether to renew their push for gun control in the wake of Monday’s deadly shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.

Hours after Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on Tuesday called for action on gun legislation, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he won’t seek a new vote.

Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who aggressively pushed his background check bill earlier this year, is skeptical that the upper chamber will revisit his measure.

As reports emerged that a former Navy reservist with a history of mental illness had fatally shot a dozen people, it appeared to give fresh impetus to the move for more gun control.

“It should be a call to action,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), an outspoken advocate of gun control legislation after the mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School in his state.

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Durbin, who is Reid’s top deputy, suggested on Tuesday morning that a measure to expand background checks — which the Senate defeated in April — might have prevented the shooting.

“God forbid this becomes so commonplace we don’t stop and reflect and think about how to avoid it in the future,” he said. “I hope some members will reconsider their opposition.”

Democrats, however, facing tough reelections showed little inclination to shift their positions.

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said he wants to wait until investigators have finished their work before reevaluating his opposition on background checks.

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) avoided questions about his stance on gun control legislation.

Pryor and Begich voted against expanding background checks earlier this year. The other two Democrats who voted “no” were Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.) and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.).

The FBI on Tuesday said that Aaron Alexis, whom police have identified as the sole gunman, entered the Navy Yard with a single shotgun before killing a dozen people. Alexis purchased the gun lawfully in Virginia, the FBI said, adding that there is no information to suggest he had an assault rifle. Alexis was killed soon after he opened fire.

Some Democrats may have been chastened by the results of an election earlier this month in Colorado, where voters recalled two state senators who supported tougher restrictions on firearms. The development was especially alarming for the left because pundits say the state has been trending blue in recent years.

A Senate Democratic aide said some in his party don’t want to talk about guns.

“Do vulnerable Democrats want to see this issue on the radar again? Probably not,” said the aide.

But the staffer said Pryor and Begich could attempt to spin the issue to their advantage by defying President Obama and the Democratic leadership.

Gun control advocates tried to use Monday’s shooting to build fresh political support for their cause.

“Our message to federal and state legislators: Strengthen and expand background checks for gun purchases and ban the military-style assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines so frequently used by mass killers,” said the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence in a statement.

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Manchin, who co-sponsored a measure earlier this year with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) to expand background checks, told reporters that he has no plans to rush his bill back to the floor.

He said he did not know whether the Manchin-Toomey proposal would receive another vote during the 113thCongress, and tried to dispel the label that it’s a gun control effort.

“It’s not gun control,” he told reporters. “This is gun sense — nothing to do about gun control.”

Manchin said he first wants to be sure it will get 60 votes — enough to overcome a filibuster.

“We just have to have the support for it,” he said.  

It is clear that Democrats in both the House and Senate are focused on fiscal matters at the moment. And Monday’s shooting will not affect the legislative calendar.

Toomey issued a statement offering little guidance on the path forward.

“The Senate spoke on this issue and we came up five votes short. It is unclear if [Monday’s] tragedy changes the atmosphere sufficiently to yield a different outcome,” he said.

Reid signaled Tuesday he is not eager to revive a debate that roiled his caucus five months ago. 

“We’re going to move this up as quickly as we can, but we’ve got to have the votes first,” he told reporters. “We don’t have the votes. I hope we get them, but we don’t have them now.”

Monday’s shooting raised speculation that Senate Democrats could attempt to move legislation narrowly tailored to addressing mental illness as a cause of gun violence.But Reid said it is not possible to address mental illness without expanding background checks.

“No you can’t, you have to have background checks,” he said.

Reid argued Tuesday that Republicans and the gun rights lobby are primarily responsible for the legislative impasse on firearms.

“I’ve talked to people consistently and the thing that bothers me is the number of Republicans who say, ‘Yeah, we know you’re right but we can’t do anything about it,’ ” he added, referring to the power of the National Rifle Association and other groups.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the lead sponsor of the assault weapons ban, which received only 40 votes this spring, said she wants to see Reid bring gun violence legislation back up for a vote.

“I’d be happy if he did. I’m not going to tell him he should because I don’t want another loss,” she said. “If I can find 20 people who want to change their minds, I’m ready to go.” 

— Peter Schroeder and Mario Trujillo contributed to this report.