House Dems unveil gun-control proposals

LANSDOWNE, Va. – House Democrats on Thursday unveiled a set of 14 gun-control proposals broadly similar to recommendations made by an Obama administration task force led by Vice President Biden after the December massacre of 20 schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn.

The congressional group, spearheaded by Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), endorsed the same core proposals as the administration: a universal background check system for gun purchases, a ban on high-capacity magazines and a renewal of the lapsed assault weapons ban.

Thompson’s group is also pushing for steps to crack down on gun trafficking and straw purchases and to boost school safety, gun safety training, mental health programs and to promote research on the “glorification of violence” in popular culture. In a press conference at their annual retreat in Virginia, Democratic leaders couched their proposals in the context of the Second Amendment, arguing that they would not infringe on anyone’s constitutional right to bear arms.

“We know we can do that while still reducing gun violence in our country,” Thompson said. “I’m a hunter and I’m a gun owner, and I believe that we should protect law-abiding citizens’ right to own firearms. I’m not interested in giving up my guns and I wouldn’t ask anyone else to give up their guns.”

Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the assistant Democratic leader, emphasized that the issue was not about the Constitution, but about security. “This issue is about our children being safe in their classrooms and our families being secure in their homes,” he said.

Gun control has been a central topic at the House Democratic retreat, and lawmakers released their proposal a day after Biden made an impassioned plea for support of the administration’s gun-control agenda on Wednesday night.

As the minority in the House, Democrats must wait for Republicans to allow a vote on gun legislation, but party leaders vowed that a significant majority of their caucus was broadly supportive of the recommendations.

Still, the political difficulty of passing gun legislation was never far from the conversation, and while Biden argued that times have changed since the 1994 passage of the assault weapons ban, Democrats did not dismiss the challenge of reinstating it nearly 20 years later.

“It was hard then, and it will be hard now,” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said. “There’s a small window here to get something done.”

Clyburn recalled the incremental progress of the Civil Rights movement and acknowledged that while Democrats would push for the whole package, they may not get all of it into law immediately.

“It may not pass, all of it, the first time out,” he said, “but I am convinced, I am convinced, that sooner rather than later, we will have comprehensive legislation.”

At the same time, the leaders resisted efforts to focus from the outset on items that might draw more bipartisan support, such as the universal background checks, instead of pushing aggressively for a broader package that includes the assault weapons ban, which is seen as the heaviest political lift.

“I think we have to try to have the boldest possible package that reduces gun violence, and I don’t think we should try to find the slowest route right now,” Pelosi said.

“I think we should move as boldly as possible and see where we come out rather than just throwing in the towel on something that has no justification,” she added, referring to assault weapons.

Lawmakers said the differences between the House proposal and that of the Biden task force were minor, and Thompson said the separate group was important because action needed to come out of Congress, not merely the administration.

“The proposals that the White House is making, the proposals that Congressman Thompson and his task force are making, are consistent and very close together in their intent, in their letter and in their effect,” Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said.

The National Rifle Association sharply criticized the proposals in a statement Thursday afternoon.

“The 4.5 million men and women of the National Rifle Association and our tens of millions of supporters across the country strongly oppose this effort to enact the Obama gun control agenda," said Chris Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist. “The last thing America needs is more failed solutions to our nation’s most pressing problems. Congress should instead focus its energies on the things that will actually keep our families and communities safer – prosecuting criminals who misuse firearms; securing our schools; and fixing the broken mental health system that keeps dangerously ill people on the street.”

Updated at 5:07 p.m.