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Hoyer: GOP ‘cowed’ by NRA

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Tuesday went after Republicans for refusing to debate gun reform, suggesting they are simply pawns of the gun lobby.

“It is incomprehensible that the president or others would say, ‘This is not the time to debate this,’” Hoyer told reporters during a news briefing.

“Is there ever a time to debate this, or are we so cowed by the [National Rifle Association] that we can’t even talk about this issue and figure out how we can make America safer?”

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Hoyer was hardly alone in his criticism. Democrats emerged from their weekly caucus meeting in the Capitol incensed that Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan calls for Trump to accept results: 'The election is over' Bottom line Democratic anger rises over Trump obstacles to Biden transition MORE (R-Wis.) had refused an invitation from Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), delivered Monday night, to join the Democrats in a gun-violence protest on the Capitol steps Wednesday.

“The notion that we can’t even talk about it doesn’t make any sense,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.).

The debate over gun reform has erupted following Sunday’s mass shooting on the Las Vegas Strip, where a lone gunman targeted an outdoor country music festival. At least 59 people were killed and more than 500 others wounded in the deadliest mass shooting in the nation’s history.

Democrats have responded with loud calls for tougher gun restrictions designed to block firearms sales to violent criminals and those with severe mental illness.

President Trump and the Republicans have taken a decidedly different tack, arguing that it’s disrespectful to the victims in Las Vegas to launch a politically charged debate over gun reform so soon after the shooting. Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynCornyn says election outcome 'becoming increasingly clear': report Top GOP senator: Biden should be getting intel briefings GOP senator congratulates Biden, says Trump should accept results MORE (R-Texas) said it’s “beyond disgusting” that Democrats would be “politicizing this terrible tragedy.”

Hoyer and most other Democrats have pushed back hard against that criticism, noting that the frequency of mass shootings around the country ensures that, by the Republicans’ reasoning, no debate could ever happen. According to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit group that tallies gun incidents, there were 483 mass shootings — in which four or more people are killed or injured — in 2016, and 274 to date this year.

“What incomprehensible logic leads one to believe that this is not the time to talk about it?” Hoyer asked. “If not now, when?”

The Democrats are pushing legislation, sponsored by Reps. Pete King (R-N.Y.) and Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), requiring unlicensed sellers at gun shows and online to screen potential buyers through an FBI database. Under current law, those screenings are required only of licensed dealers.

In 2013, the Senate, which was then controlled by Democrats, voted on a similar bill in response to the deadly shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. The proposal attracted 55 votes but was defeated by a Republican filibuster. House GOP leaders never took it up.

It appears unlikely King and Thompson's proposal would have prevented the Las Vegas massacre, as reports have indicated that the shooter had no criminal record and purchased at least some of his firearms from licensed dealers after passing a background check.

The Democrats, however, say that’s no reason not to adopt rules that might prevent the next mass shooting.

“You can’t legislate based on the last disaster. If you take that focus, we’re never going to get anywhere,” Thompson said Tuesday. “We know that background checks work. We should pass those and get that done.”

The National Rifle Association’s approach to background checks has become more stringent as the group has shifted to the right in recent years. In 1999, following the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, NRA leaders promoted universal screenings.

"We think it's reasonable to provide mandatory instant criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show,” then-NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre testified before a House Judiciary Committee subpanel at the time. “No loopholes anywhere for anyone.”

LaPierre, now head of the NRA, has since rescinded that endorsement, saying the background check system is “a failure” and lawmakers should focus their gun-violence prevention efforts on prosecuting violent criminals and bolstering the mental health-care system.

The group has not responded publicly to the shooting in Las Vegas.

The NRA is one of the most powerful lobbyist groups in Washington, having spent more than $52 million in the 2016 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. A large bulk of that funding benefitted Republican candidates, with more than $30 million going to support President Trump.

Ryan on Tuesday said the nation’s gun violence epidemic is largely a consequence of untreated mental illness. He pointed to a mental health bill enacted last year as evidence that Congress is confronting the issue head-on “to make sure that we can try and get ahead of these problems.”

“That law is now being implemented,” Ryan said during a news briefing in the Capitol.

“So I think it's important that, as we see the dust settle and we see what was behind some these tragedies, that mental health reform is a critical ingredient to making sure that we can try and prevent some of these things from happening in the past.”

The proposal he referenced, sponsored by Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), overwhelmingly passed the House in July of 2016, and President Obama signed the bill into law that December. The Democrats overwhelmingly supported the legislation, but warned that it’s no substitute for tougher gun laws.

“Follow the money,” Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.) said Tuesday. “The NRA and the Gun Owners of America have spent a lot of money to try to change the narrative, and there’s been a lack of political courage on the part of a lot of folks in Congress.

“Ask anybody in America if they think 30,000 Americans dying a year from guns is OK, if that’s something we should accept as the new normal.”