Dems escalate gun fight a year after Parkland

One year after the deadly high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., a Democratic House is moving forward with efforts to tighten gun laws.

But the bills have little chance of passing the Republican-held Senate or winning President TrumpDonald John TrumpChelsea Clinton announces birth of third child Ukrainian officials and Giuliani are sharing back-channel campaign information: report Trump attacks 'the Squad' as 'racist group of troublemakers' MORE’s signature, underscoring a pervasive cultural divide over guns that has all but strangled the ability of congressional leaders to find common ground.

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Nevertheless, Democrats are charging ahead in hopes of pressuring GOP leaders on an issue that has overwhelming public support and is sure to gain prominence as the 2020 presidential cycle picks up steam.

The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday night advanced a bill, H.R. 8, requiring background checks on all firearm sales, over the objections of Republicans.

Supporters say universal screenings are a commonsense safeguard for keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people. Critics argue they would infringe on Second Amendment rights without improving public safety.

“Whether intentionally or not, the gun control proposals in H.R. 8 could turn law abiding citizens into criminals while also failing to achieve the stated purpose of reducing gun violence,” Rep. Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseThe Memo: Fears of violence grow amid Trump race storm Democrats call for increased security after 'send her back' chants Democratic strategist on Trump tweets: 'He's feeding this fear and hate' MORE (R-La.), himself a victim of gun violence, said in testimony he prepared for a hearing last week, but never gave. He said Democrats denied him the opportunity to testify.

The bill, however, has gained the support of five Republicans: Reps. Brian FitzpatrickBrian K. FitzpatrickThe Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants Al Green says impeachment is 'only solution' to Trump's rhetoric House approves bill raising minimum wage to per hour MORE (Pa.), Pete KingPeter (Pete) Thomas KingBerkeley professor warns deepfake technology being 'weaponized' against women Hillicon Valley: Harris spikes in Google searches after debate clash with Biden | Second US city blocks facial recognition | Apple said to be moving Mac Pro production from US to China | Bipartisan Senate bill takes aim at 'deepfake' videos Senators unveil bipartisan bill to target 'deepfake' video threat MORE (N.Y.), Brian MastBrian Jeffrey MastBuzz Aldrin marks launch of Apollo 11 mission to the moon Overnight Energy: Trump threatens veto on defense bill that targets 'forever chemicals' | Republicans form conservation caucus | Pressure mounts against EPA's new FOIA rule Republicans form conservation caucus to take on environment, climate change MORE (Fla.), Chris SmithChristopher (Chris) Henry SmithThe Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants House approves bill raising minimum wage to per hour House calls for investigation into whether Pentagon tried to weaponize ticks MORE (N.J.) and Fred UptonFrederick (Fred) Stephen UptonAl Green says impeachment is 'only solution' to Trump's rhetoric Trump primary challenger Bill Weld responds to rally chants: 'We are in a fight for the soul of the GOP' Democratic strategist on Trump tweets: 'He's feeding this fear and hate' MORE (Mich.).

Democrats have a long wish list of gun reform proposals they’d like to see adopted. They’re starting with universal background checks, since the idea enjoys broad public backing. The proposal is a key priority of March for Our Lives, the national advocacy group Parkland students formed to address gun violence after the shooting.

Despite the lack of legislative action since the shooting, gun control advocates are claiming victory for what gun proponents haven’t been able to accomplish over the past year.

Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords, the gun violence prevention organization founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and her husband, Capt. Mark Kelly, said the National Rifle Association (NRA) had its dream team in the previous Congress with Republicans controlling both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Yet the 115th Congress ended without movement on any of the NRA’s top priorities, which included measures to expand concealed carry laws, deregulate gun suppressors and eliminate gun-free zones at schools.

But the powerful gun lobby won a pair of victories when Trump appointed two conservative judges to the Supreme Court — a shift in dynamics that could frustrate Democratic efforts to rein in gun violence for decades.

And in a move that heartened gun reformers, the Trump administration issued a federal rule last year to ban bump stocks, the device a gunman used in 2017 to accelerate the fire of semi-automatic weapons into a crowd of concertgoers in Las Vegas. The shooter killed 58 people, marking the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. There is no evidence the device was used in Parkland on Feb. 14, 2018.

In an interview that aired Wednesday on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” Parkland survivor David Hogg said older Americans don’t realize the impact last year’s shooting has had on his generation.

“I don’t think congressmen are realizing what they have coming,” he said. “Like, seriously, they do not realize.”

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John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said the House changed hands during the November midterm elections in part because gun safety resonated in suburban districts and largely because of Parkland and student survivors-turned-activists like Hogg.

“One thing you can safely say about 2018 is the political calculus has changed and gun safety is no longer the third rail of politics,” he said.

That was not always the case. When the Democrats last controlled the lower chamber, in 2010, some liberal members requested hearings on universal background checks. They were rebuffed by Democratic leaders wary of dividing the party and suffering a political backlash at the polls.

Since then, the country has seen a long string of prominent mass shootings that have shifted public sentiment in favor of tougher laws. The list of victims includes young students in Newtown, Conn., and Parkland; people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla.; Jews praying at a synagogue in Pittsburgh; and Giffords, who was nearly killed at a 2011 campaign event in Tucson, Ariz.

The outcry over those events has created a new appetite on Capitol Hill for strengthening gun laws. Just after the Parkland shooting last year, public support for universal background checks soared to 97 percent.

Democrats are not alone in changing their approach to the issue. The NRA endorsed universal background checks in 1999, following the deadly mass shooting at Columbine High School near Denver. The group later reversed course, and is now opposed to any expansion of screenings.

Jennifer Baker, an NRA spokeswoman, said the promise of a fair, instant and accurate background check system never materialized.

“It’s a broken system that does not act as a deterrent for criminals getting guns,” she said. “It only serves as a roadblock to law abiding citizens who want to exercise their Second Amendment right.”

Baker went on to hammer Democrats’ proposal as ineffective “political theater.”

“Instead of addressing the real underlying issues of mental health that could save lives, they would rather engage in political theater, pushing legislation that will have no impact on criminals to score political points and raise money with their base,” she said.

Baker said the prospect for gun control being enacted at the federal level has not changed since Parkland. The only thing that has changed, she said, is the Supreme Court now has a majority of justices in strong support of the Second Amendment.

“And what happens in the Supreme Court can impact laws not just at the federal level but state and local level as well,” she said.

March for Our Lives, which Hogg helped organize, declined to comment for this story. The group has gone dark until Sunday, in memory of those killed in the shooting.

Despite the shift in public support toward tougher gun laws, advocates have a rough road ahead. Even if Democrats win back the White House and the Senate in 2020, legal experts say the NRA could reap big rewards from having Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughMcConnell challenger faces tougher path after rocky launch Lindsey Graham's Faustian bargain Liberal, conservative Supreme Court justices unite in praising Stevens MORE on the court for years to come.

The court agreed in January to hear a gun rights case in the fall, putting the issue back in the national spotlight when 2020 presidential campaigns will be in full swing. The dispute, which centers on gun restrictions in New York City, marks the first time in almost a decade the justices have weighed in on the Second Amendment, and courtwatchers are crediting Kavanaugh.

In November, the court declined to hear a case challenging the constitutionality of California’s concealed carry laws. The New York case challenges a city law that prohibits residents from transporting handguns to a second home or shooting range outside city limits even if the gun is licensed, locked and unloaded.

Legal scholars say it is the first time the court will address the scope of Second Amendment rights outside of the home.

Adam Winkler, a professor at the UCLA School of Law, said the court’s ruling could set broad principles for guns in public that undermine concealed carry restrictions or raise the hurdle generally for gun control laws to survive judicial challenges.

“While it’s true the NRA hasn’t done as well as some had expected under Donald Trump, I wouldn’t count them out yet,” Winkler said. “It’s one thing to have political energy; it’s another to have political results, and the two Supreme Court appointments are political results.”