Democrats voice doubts Congress will take serious action on guns

Key Democrats in Congress are already voicing serious doubts that Congress will take meaningful action on gun control in response to the back-to-back mass shootings in Texas and Ohio.

While lawmakers in both parties are feeling heavy pressure to fight America’s gun violence epidemic, the Democrats say it will be difficult to get a deal amid a heated, polarized presidential election cycle.

“Nothing is going to happen,” predicted one Democratic senator, whose state suffered a mass shooting.

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The skepticism reflects a long history of congressional inaction in the wake of scores of mass shootings around the country in recent decades. The debate has followed a familiar arc, with calls for action subsiding over time, diminishing the pressure on politicians to act.

“After Sandy Hook — remember that? — and nothing happened,” an incredulous Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsCan the Democrats unseat Trump? Democrats slam alleged politicization of Trump State Department after IG report Senior Trump officials accused of harassing, retaliating against career State Dept. employees MORE (D-Md.) said Wednesday in an address at the National Press Club.

“I think we really need to be careful when listening to politicians talk about what they're going to do. Let me be clear, you have a lot of talk. ... But in the end — in the end — nothing happens,” he said.

Reform advocates are hoping this time is different.

After 31 people were killed within 24 hours at the shootings at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and a nightclub district in Dayton, Ohio, President TrumpDonald John TrumpO'Rourke: Trump driving global, U.S. economy into recession Manchin: Trump has 'golden opportunity' on gun reforms Objections to Trump's new immigration rule wildly exaggerated MORE endorsed the adoption of so-called red flag laws, which empower local law enforcers to seize firearms from those determined by a court to pose a threat to themselves or others.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham warns Trump on Taliban deal in Afghanistan: Learn from 'Obama's mistakes' Appropriators warn White House against clawing back foreign aid Trump meets with national security team on Afghanistan peace plan MORE (R-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced plans to draft such a bill, with help from Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellAre Democrats turning Trump-like? House Democrat calls for gun control: Cities can ban plastic straws but 'we can't ban assault weapons?' Churches are arming and training congregants in response to mass shootings: report MORE (R-Ky.) vowed he’s ready to move on Trump’s calls to action. 

Yet plenty of hurdles stand in the way.

Lawmakers aren’t in Washington right now, raising questions about whether the appetite will remain when they return to the Capitol a month from now.

Democrats have sought to convince Republicans to return early, but McConnell ruled that out on Thursday in a local radio interview.

“If we did that, we would just have people scoring points and nothing would happen. There has to be a bipartisan discussion here of what we can agree on,” he said in an interview with Kentucky’s WHAS.

 

More significantly, the two parties have drastically different ideas regarding the most effective way to rein in gun violence. Trump and some Republicans are homing in on red flag legislation, but some Democrats are already voicing doubts that Graham’s yet-to-be-drafted bill will bear the teeth to attract their support.

Additionally, Democratic leaders contend the red flag proposals, while important, are insufficient by themselves to curb gun violence, since those whose firearms are seized could easily purchase new guns from unlicensed dealers, without the burden of an FBI screening. With that in mind, Democratic leaders want to couple the GOP’s red flag push with expanded background check legislation, which passed the House along largely partisan lines in February. 

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerLewandowski on potential NH Senate run: If I run, 'I'm going to win' Appropriators warn White House against clawing back foreign aid Colorado candidates vying to take on Gardner warn Hickenlooper they won't back down MORE (D-N.Y.), while supporting tough red flag legislation, called the Republicans’ stand-alone approach “an ineffective cop-out,” vowing that Democrats will push for an accompanying vote on the House-passed background check bill. 

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Meanwhile, House Democrats are eyeing a broader reform package that could include provisions like a ban on high-capacity magazines, like was used in Dayton, and a prohibition on weapon sales to those convicted of misdemeanor hate crimes. The House Judiciary Committee is also expected to move its own red flag bill — one likely to be tougher than Graham’s proposal, which “will give leverage to Senate Democrats,” according to a House leadership aide. 

“Senator Schumer’s strategy keeps the focus on Mitch McConnell where it should be,” the aide said Thursday in an email.

In a surprise move, McConnell on Thursday said he's now open to considering expanded background checks, which he suggested would lead the debate, along with red-flag legislation, when Congress returns to Washington.

"Those are two items that for sure will be front and center as we see what we can come together on and pass," he said.

Still, McConnell has long opposed new restrictions on the Second Amendment, including the expanded background checks at the top of the Democrats’ wish list. And he has a powerful ally in the National Rifle Association (NRA), which is already applying direct pressure on Trump to oppose any such legislation. The dynamics have added to the sense, among veteran Democrats, that this debate will end like the others: with Congress doing nothing. 

“I think the Senate majority leader is also listening to the NRA,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) told CNN Thursday.

There are other barriers to enacting gun reform on Capitol Hill. A diminished-but-still-influential NRA has begun to engage, saying Democratic 2020 candidates only want to “politicize these tragedies, and to demonize the NRA and its 5 million law-abiding members.” And none of the background check proposals, the NRA said, would have prevented either mass shooting.

Of course, the biggest question mark is Trump himself. If the president threw his full political weight behind gun legislation, many believe he could push it through Congress. But Trump has seemed reluctant to take the lead, instead saying it’s incumbent on Congress to send something to his desk.

“Schumer doesn’t have control over whether or not McConnell brings a bill to the floor for a vote,” the Democratic senator said. “Trump would have to tell McConnell to bring a gun bill to the floor in order for anything to happen.”

For the second time this week, Trump expressed support for background check legislation that Democrats and some Republicans have been pushing for. But Democrats are extremely skeptical about McConnell, a staunch NRA ally who is up for reelection in 2020 and could alienate his base if he tries to push through any gun reforms.

Democrats believe McConnell will try to drag out the process, perhaps deep into the fall, to sap momentum and hope Trump and the country move on to something else.

“We're going to have these bipartisan discussions and when we get back hopefully be able to come together and actually pass something. I want to make a law,” McConnell told WHAS.

Democrats are skeptical Trump will put any muscle into getting a background checks bill turned into law.

Told that Trump this week endorsed the idea of background checks and red flag legislation, the Democratic senator shot back: “Yes, he says a lot.”

“What's happening is the Republicans — listen to me carefully — they're going to make all these glorious statements … and they figure the president's got their back,” Cummings added. “And even if the president says some nice things, I believe it's a situation where McConnell's got his back.

“So, again, what we have to do is demand results.”

Jordain Carney contributed.