Senate

Schumer walks tightrope in gun control debate 

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is walking a tightrope on gun control legislation after two more mass shootings that have shaken the country and angered Democrats frustrated over inaction on guns.

While members of his caucus and progressive activists are pushing him to force the GOP to vote on an array of proposals, Schumer also wants to protect Democrats in tough races in purple states from taking tough votes.

One Democratic senator who requested anonymity to discuss internal caucus dynamics said Schumer right now is closely attuned to the preferences of senators in tough races who need to win to keep an evenly split Senate in Democratic hands.

The senator said the Democratic senators in tough races have a bigger say than other members.

“There’s a discussion in the caucus about whether to hold accountability votes and the people who are trying really hard to win tough races have a supermajority,” the senator said. 

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who hours after the shooting that left 19 elementary school children dead in Uvalde, Texas, took to the Senate floor to ask “what are we doing,” has also voiced support for seeking a compromise with GOP senators on smaller-bore issues. He’s pressed for time to work out something with Republicans willing to talk.

“Maybe I’m a fool for being the eternal optimist, but I’m just gonna stay at it for these next few days, the next week,” the senator told NPR’s “All Things Considered” this week.

Murphy told The Hill he wants to get 60 votes on legislation.

“I want 60 votes. I’m willing to do pieces of Manchin-Toomey that can get 60 votes and can save lives. I’m not going to negotiate in public what we end up debating because I want to listen to Republicans,” he said, referring to the bill crafted in 2013 by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) to expand background checks that created an exception for transfers and sales between friends and family.

Politics has long shadowed the discussion on guns in both parties.

While Republicans have been criticized for an unwillingness to take even small steps to restrict access to guns in response to a national plague of mass shootings, it’s not lost on Democrats that the last time they had an extended debate and votes on ambitious gun proposals in 2013, they lost nine seats and their Senate majority in the following election.  

Democrats also believe they lost the 2000 presidential race in part because of attacks on an assault weapons ban that was then in place but expired in 2004.

Activists say there were other reasons for Democratic nominee Al Gore’s defeat in 2000 and the midterm losses in 2014.

Some say Democrats are too worried about political consequences and blast them for their inaction.

Igor Volsky, the executive director of Guns Down America, noted that polls show expanded background checks and an assault weapons ban are popular with voters.   

“I believe that their calculation is that taking a vote on protecting Americans’ lives is somehow a political disadvantage,” he said.   

“They’re afraid because they have this absolutely bizarre notion that if you go hard on this issue you animate the other side and the other side comes out much louder than their side,” he added.   

Sen. Gary Peters (Mich.), who is leading the Democratic Senate campaign arm this cycle, says it makes sense to focus on legislation that can pick up GOP support and become law.

“I think right now we just need to focus on trying to see if we can get some Republicans to support us on something common sense,” he said.  

Asked about an assault weapons ban, Peters said, “I think that would be hard to get any Republican on that.” 

“I think background checks is probably our best opportunity right now, or red flag [legislation]. Those two would be ones that I think we could get some Republican support and show we’re making some progress,” he said.  

Other Senate Democrats and activists are pressing to scale up their party’s ambitions. They blame easily accessible assault weapons and high-capacity magazines as enabling two 18-year-old-gunman to kill 31 people in Buffalo and Texas.  

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) on the floor Thursday called for Congress to ban assault weapons and magazines that carry more than 10 bullets.  

“The public does not need an assault weapon for self-defense. They don’t need it for recreational use. They don’t need it. These are military style weapons,” he said.  

“Why does anyone for a lawful purpose need an ammunition magazine that holds more than 10 rounds? The mass killers use it. We shouldn’t make it easier for them to carry out these atrocities,” he added.  

But there are other Democrats who worry that a debate covering those issues could be a political disaster for the party.

One Democrat told The Hill this week that failed votes to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in 2013 “was a catastrophic failure” because it gave Republicans the chance to go on offense in the gun control debate.   

Schumer came under intense criticism after he initially signaled Wednesday there would be no big vote on gun control, with Volsky tweeting that it was “absolutely pathetic and disgusting.”

Schumer later clarified his position in a floor speech Thursday morning promising that he would force Republicans to vote on gun violence legislation if negotiations fail to produce a deal quickly.   

“Make no mistake about it, if these negotiations do not bear fruit in a short period of time, the Senate will vote on gun safety legislation,” he declared.

Senate Democratic aides say it’s hard to predict exactly how a gun control debate in Washington will play in Senate battleground states.  

Guns could be an integral part of the race in Arizona, where Sen. Mark Kelly (D) co-founded The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. It is named after Kelly’s wife, former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was seriously injured in a 2011 mass shooting.   

Still, while Kelly has worked to curb gun violence, he has also been careful not to alienate voters who care about Second Amendment rights.   

He declared during a campaign debate in October of 2020 that he was “a supporter of the Second Amendment” and “a gun owner” and told an interviewer “I probably own more firearms than your average Arizonan.”  

Some gun control advocates say they support Schumer’s strategy to work with Republicans, even if the best-case scenario is small steps toward gun control, such as the provision of grants to encourage states to set up red flag laws to take away guns from dangerous or mentally unstable people.   

Nevada, where Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D) faces a competitive reelection race, already has a red flag law. But some battleground states, including Arizona, Georgia, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, do not yet have such laws on the books.

 “Anything that advances gun-violence prevention would be a success,” said Christian Heyne, vice president of policy at Brady, a nonprofit group dedicated to curbing gun violence.   

He said the 18-year-old shooter who killed 10 people at a Buffalo supermarket could have been stopped if New York’s red flag law, which the state enacted in 2019, had been used as it could have been. He also suggested the shooting in Uvalde might have also been prevented if Texas had a red flag law.   

Tags Charles Schumer Charles Schumer Chris Murphy Chris Murphy Gary Peters Gun control red flag laws Texas school shooting

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