Dems fear overreach as left presses assault weapon ban

Democrats will meet Tuesday morning in the Capitol to discuss their next steps on gun control as they wrestle with how to move forward following one of the deadliest mass shootings in the nation’s modern history.

The party is galvanized behind the idea that Congress should take action on gun control, but faces warnings from some Democrats that reaching too far could drive away voters in the swing districts they’ll need to retake the Speaker’s gavel.

A number of rank-and-file lawmakers view this month’s shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school as a potential tipping point in the years-long congressional stalemate over new gun restrictions. Shedding caution, this growing chorus of Democrats is calling for extensive reforms, including a ban on military-style weapons.

“Americans don’t own tanks or missiles, so why should our streets be flooded with weapons of war made for the sole purpose of killing people?” Rep. Ted DeutchTheodore (Ted) Eliot DeutchOil companies join blitz for carbon tax The Go-Go's rock the stage at annual 'We Write the Songs' DC concert Trump-linked lobbyist holding fundraiser for House Democrat MORE, a Democrat who represents Parkland, said Monday in introducing a sweeping ban on assault weapons.

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In a clear sign that House leaders don’t intend to shy away from an aggressive approach to the issue, Rep. Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiThe Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan Frustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' Trump-Pelosi fight threatens drug pricing talks MORE (D-Calif.) signed onto the ban as an original co-sponsor — a rare move for the minority leader prone to avoiding official endorsements of specific bills. 

 

Still it comes as other Democrats warn that embracing aggressive new gun restrictions carries risks, particularly in conservative-leaning districts where gun rights are sacrosanct. 

“It’s one of those fundamental issues that riles up American politics — it’s up there with abortion and immigration — and they need to be very careful,” said a former Democratic leadership aide. “If a Democratic candidate, or the party as a whole, overextends on this issue, then it becomes incredibly easy for the Republicans to play that up in a lot of districts. 

“It’s easier to demagogue on this than to do something about it,” the aide added, “and you risk overreaching as a party if you try to make it a one-size-fits-all [issue].” 

Just a day after the Florida shootings, Pelosi pressed for quick action on three modest proposals: creating a special committee to examine gun violence, expanding background checks before almost all gun sales and empowering federal researchers to study gun violence as a public health issue — research that’s currently banned.

A House leadership aide said Monday that those proposals were highlighted “because they existed at that moment,” and Democratic leaders are open to expanding their legislative wish list based on the sentiments of the broader caucus.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) is “going to attack everything,” the current aide noted, downplaying the dangers of an assertive push for expansive reforms like the assault weapons ban. 

“I don’t think there are many districts where you’re going to be able to run on that [to] scaremonger people,” the aide said.

But much more centrist approaches have drawn attacks from gun rights supporters, endangering their Democratic sponsors.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) said he came under criticism for sponsoring a bill — backed by Republicans and the NRA — that bolstered the existing background check system.

“That was a very narrow, tailored solution. Even there they were saying we were trying to take guns away,” he said. 

If Democrats decide to broaden their approach, they’ll have plenty to consider.

Reps. Salud CarbajalSalud CarbajalThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems raise stakes with talk of 'constitutional crisis' House Dem vets press McConnell on emergency declaration Dem rep 'surprised' more Republicans didn't vote to block Trump emergency declaration MORE (D-Calif.), Elizabeth EstyElizabeth Henderson EstyConnecticut elects first black congresswoman Former aides alleging sexual harassment on Capitol Hill urge congressional action Rising Dem star in Connecticut says people like me ‘deserve a seat at the table’ in Congress MORE (D-Conn.) and Don Beyer (D-Va.) are pushing a bill allowing law enforcement and family members to petition judges for restraining orders targeting gun owners showing signs of violence or instability.

Reps. Carolyn MaloneyCarolyn Bosher MaloneyHouse rebukes Mulvaney's efforts to rein in consumer bureau On The Money: Congress, White House aim to include debt limit increase in spending deal | McConnell optimistic budget deal near | Carson defends HUD eviction plan | Senate votes to undo tax hike on Gold Star families Carson on HUD eviction plan: 'You take care of your own first' MORE (D-N.Y.) and Bill PascrellWilliam (Bill) James PascrellOn The Money: Judge rules banks can give Trump records to House | Mnuchin pegs debt ceiling deadline as 'late summer' | Democrats see momentum in Trump tax return fight | House rebukes Trump changes to consumer agency Pelosi employs committee chairs to tamp down calls for Trump impeachment Democrats sense new momentum in Trump tax return fight MORE (D-N.J.) are set to introduce legislation Tuesday reinstating an Obama-era regulation, eliminated by Republicans last year, that prohibited gun sales to those individuals deemed so unstable that they can’t manage their own finances.

Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.) is floating legislation to spike taxes on guns and ammunition.

Still other Democrats want to raise the gun-buying age from 18 to 21, a proposal Trump and other Republicans have flirted with but that is opposed by the NRA.

Yet the Democrats’ campaign arm is shying away from the notion that the party will adopt any national message on gun reform, citing regional and cultural differences across the country. And a second leadership aide suggested Democrats won’t go too far with their proposals, since major reforms are unlikely under a GOP-controlled Congress.

“If we’re in the majority, of course the legislation changes,” the second aide said.

Democrats’ history with gun reform is checkered. Under former President Clinton, they enacted a 10-year ban on assault weapons, but it was widely viewed as a factor helping to secure George W. Bush’s White House victory six years later.

Aside from 2007 legislation designed to encourage more background check reporting — a measure adopted in the wake of the shooting massacre at Virginia Tech the same year — they largely abandoned the issue. Indeed, when Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee requested background check hearings in 2010, when they controlled the gavel, they were refused.

Pelosi defended that decision this month, saying it was a practical one: The votes to pass the legislation, she argued, simply weren’t there in the Senate at the time.

Since then, the country has been horrified by a string of headline-grabbing mass shootings.

“Things have changed across the country, not just in Congress,” said Rep. Mike ThompsonCharles (Mike) Michael ThompsonDems highlight NYT article on Trump's business losses in 'tax gap' hearing 20 years after Columbine, Dems bullish on gun reform Kudlow said he doesn't expect Trump tax law to be reconsidered MORE (Calif.), who heads the Democrats’ gun violence prevention task force.

Gun reform advocates are pointing to Virginia’s recent gubernatorial race as a case study in how the push for tougher laws can be an asset, rather than a liability, at the polls.

Surveys conducted after the contest by Everytown for Gun Safety found that 57 percent of those who viewed guns as their top issue voted for Democrat Ralph Northam over Republican Ed Gillespie.

“Many people around Washington like to say, ‘Oh, guns is the third rail of politics,’ ” Everytown President John Feinblatt said Monday. “I don’t think you can say that anymore.”

Still, Feinblatt doesn’t seem to be holding his breath for Congress to take action this year. He’s more focused on this fall’s elections, particularly at the state level.

“There’s a lot of talk, but it’s herding cats in Congress. … When I think about where we’re putting most of our muscle today, it’s to throw them out,” he said. 

“It will be the states that actually show Washington, D.C., where the public stands.”