Democrats raise pressure on McConnell to tackle gun reform

Democrats raise pressure on McConnell to tackle gun reform
© Aaron Schwartz

A handful of House Democrats returned to Washington on Tuesday to press House Republicans to tackle gun control immediately, and to accuse Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFurious Republicans prepare to rebuke Trump on Syria Republicans wrestle with impeachment strategy Mattis warns 'ISIS will resurge' without U.S. pressure on Syria MORE (R-Ky.) of single-handedly blocking tougher laws at the expense of public safety. 

Democrats have long sought legislation to expand background checks before gun sales, which passed through the House in February, and they're hoping the public outcry surrounding shootings in Texas and Ohio this month will compel Senate Republicans to consider their bill. 

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"So far this year more than 9,000 Americans ... have been killed by gun violence — including those killed in more than 250 mass shootings. ... How many Americans will lose their lives, or their loved ones, to random gun violence before the United States Senate takes action?" House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerHillicon Valley: Google, Reddit to testify on tech industry protections | Trump joins Amazon-owned Twitch | House to vote on bill to combat foreign interference Overnight Health Care — Presented by Coalition Against Surprise Medical Billing — Judge blocks Trump 'public charge' rule | Appeals court skeptical of Trump arguments for Medicaid work requirements | CDC offers guidance for treating vaping-related cases House to vote this month on legislation to combat foreign interference in elections MORE (D-Md.) said during a rare recess news conference in the Capitol. 

"The House has acted, and it is time — past time — for the [Senate] to act," he said.

Democrats are urging McConnell to reconvene the upper chamber amid the August recess, but the GOP leader has signaled he has no intention of doing so.

"If we did that, we would just have people scoring points and nothing would happen," McConnell said Thursday in an interview with Louisville radio station WHAS. "There has to be a bipartisan discussion here of what we can agree on. If we do it prematurely it will just be another frustrating experience."

President TrumpDonald John TrumpWHCA calls on Trump to denounce video depicting him shooting media outlets Video of fake Trump shooting members of media shown at his Miami resort: report Trump hits Fox News's Chris Wallace over Ukraine coverage MORE and McConnell have expressed some openness to considering new background check legislation since the most recent shootings, though both have opposed tougher laws in the past.

McConnell last week said background checks would be "front and center" in the debate and acknowledged there is "a lot of support for that" in an interview with a local Kentucky radio host.

But McConnell has neither endorsed the concept nor promised to bring the bill to a vote, leading Democrats to say McConnell is hoping outrage over the shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, which left at least 31 people dead, will subside by the time Congress returns to Washington next month. 

"We know exactly why he isn't here. He's waiting for the outrage to die down, for the headlines to change, [for] the people to turn the page and think about something else," said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.). "But as he delays or waits for people to lose interest, 100 Americans are dying every day to gun violence."

Sponsored by Rep. Mike ThompsonCharles (Mike) Michael ThompsonHere are the Democrats who aren't co-sponsoring an assault weapons ban House panel advances anti-gun violence legislation Pelosi asks Democrats for 'leverage' on impeachment MORE (D-Calif.), the Democrats' background check bill would expand federal screenings of prospective gun buyers to include sales conducted by unlicensed dealers, like those who frequently operate at gun shows and on the internet. Current law requires such screenings only for licensed dealers, creating an enormous loophole in efforts to keep firearms from the hands of felons, domestic abusers and other potentially dangerous people.

A related bill, also passed by the House in February, would allow the FBI more time to conduct its background screenings. 

McConnell has refused to consider either proposal, citing the lack of Republican support and veto threats from Trump. The National Rifle Association, the nation's largest gun lobbyist group, opposes both measures.

But the shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, have sparked a new round of public fury surrounding the nation's gun violence epidemic — and Congress's history of doing nothing in response. 

McConnell's openness to new gun restrictions is a sign of the rare pressure facing the Republican leader to respond.

He cited a separate background check bill, which is being drafted by Sens. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyNSA improperly collected US phone records in October, new documents show Overnight Defense: Pick for South Korean envoy splits with Trump on nuclear threat | McCain blasts move to suspend Korean military exercises | White House defends Trump salute of North Korean general WH backpedals on Trump's 'due process' remark on guns MORE (R-Pa.) and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by USAA — Ex-Ukraine ambassador testifies Trump pushed for her ouster GOP requests update on criminal referrals prompted by 2018 Kavanaugh probe Fallout from Kavanaugh confirmation felt in Washington one year later MORE (D-W.Va.). The pair had introduced a similar bill in 2013, in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, but it was defeated by a Republican filibuster on the Senate floor. McConnell, then the minority leader, voted against it. 

"Unfortunately most of the time we've ended in a partisan gridlock," McConnell told the radio host. "I think there's a chance that it will be avoided this time."

Hoyer, for his part, warned that House Democrats are not prepared to accept a watered-down Senate background check bill.

"I don't think it can be weakened when we eliminate loopholes," he said. "If they only eliminate some loopholes, we would not believe that was common sense."

For Democrats, the pressure campaign is just heating up. Democratic leaders on the House Judiciary Committee are weighing whether to call the panel back to Washington during the recess, and Hoyer said they're eyeing scores of gun reform proposals — beyond the background checks — for potential consideration. It's unclear what specific legislation Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerBarr to speak at Notre Dame law school on Friday The 13 House Democrats who back Kavanaugh's impeachment Ignore the hype — this is not an impeachment inquiry MORE (D-N.Y.) has in mind, but Hoyer mentioned several proposals Democrats are eyeing, including a ban on assault weapons and new limits on magazine capacity.

If McConnell and Senate Republicans refuse to move some gun reforms this year, Hoyer warned, Democrats will take "every opportunity" to attach those measures to larger legislative packages further down the road. 

"He doesn't have to vote for it; every senator will have to make their own decision," Hoyer said. "But not to bring it to the floor is an abdication of his responsibility to the American people."