Gun debate takes a dramatic turn

Gun debate takes a dramatic turn
© Greg Nash

Democrats found an unlikely ally in Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Democrats duke it out in most negative debate so far MORE on Wednesday as they took over the Senate floor in a bid to pressure Republicans into passing legislation that would ban gun sales to suspected terrorists.

The filibuster in the Senate was led by Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyLawmakers raise alarms over Trump coronavirus response Schumer: Trump coronavirus response marked by 'towering and dangerous incompetence' The Hill's Morning Report - Sanders steamrolls to South Carolina primary, Super Tuesday MORE (D-Conn.), who began holding down the floor Wednesday morning in a maneuver that was cheered by the left and embraced by the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocratic insiders stay on the sidelines in 2020 race Hillicon Valley: Twitter falling short on pledge to verify primary candidates | Barr vows to make surveillance reforms after watchdog report | DHS cyber chief focused on 2020 The Hill's Campaign Report: High stakes at last Democratic debate before Super Tuesday MORE.


“I’m prepared to stand on this floor and talk about the need for this body to come together on keeping terrorists away from getting guns ... for, frankly, as long as I can, because I know that we can come together on this issue,” Murphy said at the beginning of his floor speech.

The spectacle in the Senate, which ended early Thursday after nearly 15 hours, placed new pressure on GOP leaders to strengthen the nation’s gun laws in the wake of Sunday’s massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando.

But it was Trump in particular — by vowing to meet with the National Rifle Association (NRA) to discuss stricter laws — who had the biggest impact, suggesting he’d break with his own party to support gun reforms championed by President Obama.

“I will be meeting with the NRA, who has endorsed me, about not allowing people on the terrorist watch list, or the no fly list, to buy guns,” the GOP presidential candidate tweeted Wednesday morning.

Democrats for years have pushed such a bill — dubbed “No fly, no buy” — and some party leaders wasted little time hailing Trump’s potential endorsement.

“Welcome to the cause,” Clinton said, tongue-in-cheek, in an interview with The Huffington Post. “This is something I’ve been talking about for a long time.”

Republican leaders have long opposed the legislation, citing concerns shared by the NRA that it could undermine Second Amendment protections by preventing gun sales to those put on the terrorist list by mistake.

“A mid-level bureaucrat can put anybody on a no-fly list with no due process rights,” Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan says he disagrees with Romney's impeachment vote Trump doubles down on Neil Cavuto attacks: 'Will he get the same treatment as' Shep Smith? Trump lashes out at Fox News coverage: 'I won every one of my debates' MORE (R-Wis.) told a local Wisconsin newspaper in December, as Democrats tried unsuccessfully to move the bill following a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. 

Trump’s suggested support for the “No fly, no buy” measure potentially adds gun reform to a long and growing list of issues on which the Republicans and their presidential standard-bearer don’t see eye to eye. The list includes disagreements over major policies like free trade, immigration reform, tax hikes, the minimum wage, Medicare drug prices and Social Security benefits.

A Trump endorsement of the anti-terror bill would also align the presumptive GOP nominee with Democratic gun reformers, who spent most of Wednesday monopolizing the Senate floor to pressure Republican leaders to take action following the Orlando attack.

Murphy during his floor speech invoked the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre his state suffered in 2012, when a single gunman shot and killed 20 young children and six adults. 

“I can’t tell you how hard it is to look into the eyes of the families of those little boys and girls who were killed in Sandy Hook and tell them that almost four years later we’ve done nothing, nothing at all,” Murphy said Wednesday on the floor.

The Democrats are hoping to use the “No fly, no buy” legislation to put Republicans on the defensive in the aftermath of the Orlando shooting. Indeed, Sen. Pat Toomey (R), who’s facing a tough reelection contest in Pennsylvania this year, was attacked this week by his Democratic challenger, Katie McGinty, for voting against the legislation when it hit the Senate floor in December. 

“The senator has undercut any claim to genuine concern on gun safety,” McGinty said Wednesday.

Toomey, one of the few Republicans with a history of backing gun reforms, joined Democrats on the floor Wednesday with his own calls for action.

“I’m of the view that it’s time to get something done here,” he said.

He also plans to introduce a bill Thursday intended to be a compromise between the Republican and Democratic watch-list bills.

“I’m of the view that it’s time to get something done here,” he said on the chamber floor. 

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamDemocrats duke it out in most negative debate so far Republicans give Barr vote of confidence Overnight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Lawmakers raise alarms over Trump coronavirus response | Top official warns virus appears inevitable in US | Democrats block two Senate abortion bills MORE is another Republican urging “a reasonable discussion” on the terrorist watch list.

The parties, however, seem to have different ideas about what “reasonable” reforms look like.

Republicans are uniting behind legislation that launches a trial process any time a known or suspected terrorist tries to buy firearms or explosives. Sponsored by Sen. John CornynJohn CornynHillicon Valley: Twitter falling short on pledge to verify primary candidates | Barr vows to make surveillance reforms after watchdog report | DHS cyber chief focused on 2020 Twitter falling short on pledge to verify primary candidates Trump creates new headaches for GOP with top intelligence pick MORE (R-Texas), the bill would delay the sale for 72 hours, within which time the Department of Justice (DOJ) would have to show probable cause that the weapon could be used in connection with terrorism. If a judge doesn’t agree, the sale can proceed. 

The NRA, which opposes virtually all new restrictions on gun sales and ownership, said Wednesday that it welcomes the meeting with Trump, while reiterating its endorsement of the Cornyn bill.

“The NRA believes that terrorists should not be allowed to purchase or possess firearms, period,” Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, said in a statement.

“If an investigation uncovers evidence of terrorist activity or involvement, the government should be allowed to immediately go to court, block the sale, and arrest the terrorist. At the same time, due process protections should be put in place that allow law-abiding Americans who are wrongly put on a watchlist to be removed.”

The Democrats have a different take, saying the Cornyn bill is “unworkable” because it requires the DOJ to jump through unrealistic hoops in too short a span.

They are pushing an alternative, sponsored by Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinCalifornia lawmakers mark Day of Remembrance for Japanese internment Democratic senators ask DOJ watchdog to expand Giuliani probe House passes bipartisan bill to create women's history museum MORE (D-Calif.), that would empower the DOJ to block the sale of firearms or explosives if the agency “has a reasonable belief” the buyer “may use a firearm in connection with terrorism.”

There’s an appeals process allowing the buyer to challenge a denial in court. But there’s no sunset window, and no automatic trial.  

Trump’s tweet on Wednesday left open the question of which plan — if any — he might support. 

Toomey is hoping to reach a middle ground between the Feinstein measure, which he called “badly flawed,” and Cornyn’s, which he voted for but said likely doesn’t give enough leeway to the attorney general.

Toomey's legislation would require the attorney general to create a list of "likely terrorists" that could be blocked from buying guns. The list would then be submitted to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which would review it annually and remove any Americans inadvertently included, according to a summary of the forthcoming bill from his office.

"I have drafted legislation that takes the best features from both of the previous proposals, effectively preventing terrorists from being able to purchase guns, while also safeguarding the rights of innocent Americans who are mistakenly put on the list," Toomey said in a statement. 

--This report was updated on June 16 at 7:43 a.m.