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 DeutchShakespeare Theatre Company goes virtual for 'Will on the Hill...or Won't They?' Florida Democrat introduces bill to recognize Puerto Rico statehood referendum Matt Gaetz, Roger Stone back far-right activist Laura Loomer in congressional bid MORE, a Democrat who represents Parkland, said Monday in introducing a sweeping ban on assault weapons.


In a clear sign that House leaders don’t intend to shy away from an aggressive approach to the issue, Rep. Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo On The Money: Power players play chess match on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi bullish, Trump tempers optimism | Analysis: Nearly 1M have run out of jobless benefits Overnight Health Care: CDC expands definition of 'close contact' after COVID-19 report | GOP coronavirus bill blocked in Senate | OxyContin maker agrees to B settlement with Trump administration 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 CarbajalMichigan Republican isolating after positive coronavirus test GOP Rep. Mike Bost tests positive for COVID-19 Democratic Rep. Carbajal tests positive for COVID-19 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 MaloneyTrump, House lawyers return to court in fight over subpoena for financial records Safeguarding US elections by sanctioning Russian sovereign debt Fears grow of voter suppression in Texas MORE (D-N.Y.) and Bill PascrellWilliam (Bill) James PascrellObama hits trail to help Biden, protect legacy Trump's COVID-19 case draws new attention to handling of pandemic Democrat calls for hearing with IRS chief after NYT story on Trump's taxes 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 ThompsonHouse Democrats unveil green tax package The Hill's Coronavirus Report: BIO's Michelle McMurry-Heath says 400 projects started in 16 weeks in biotech firms to fight virus, pandemic unemployment total tops 43 million Gun control group rolls out House endorsements 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.”