The Hill: Dems vow swift action on gun reform next year
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The nation's latest mass shooting has rekindled the fire under Democrats to use their newly won majority to strengthen federal gun laws in the next Congress.
The issue was off the table for eight years of Republican rule, as GOP leaders have sided with the powerful gun lobby against any new gun restrictions.
But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who's seeking to regain the Speaker's gavel, vowed to move quickly on gun reform next year, citing Wednesday night's shooting massacre at a California country music bar as the latest reason Congress should step in with new restrictions on the sale and ownership of firearms.
Universal background checks, Pelosi suggested, would be the likely first step.
“It doesn’t cover everything, but it will save many lives,” Pelosi said Thursday night on CNN’s “Cuomo Prime Time" program.
“This will be a priority for us going into the next Congress.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), likely the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said this week that he’ll “immediately get to work” on that legislation next year.
That position marks a shift from almost decade ago, when Democrats last controlled the House and party leaders declined to consider tougher gun laws despite entreaties from some rank-and-file members.
Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), a gun reformer from Chicago and member of the Judiciary Committee, had requested hearings on background checks in 2010, only to be refused.
The reasons were largely political: House Democrats, at the time, had a more conservative-leaning caucus, boasting more than 50 Blue Dogs in battleground districts the party was fighting to preserve.
After a 10-year ban on assault weapons signed by former President Clinton was widely viewed as a “third rail” that helped secure George W. Bush’s White House victory in 2000, Democrats didn’t want to repeat history.
Since then, the country has seen a long string of prominent mass shootings, including violence targeting a congresswoman in Tucson, Ariz., elementary school students in Newtown, Conn., nightclubbers in Orlando, churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., country music fans in Las Vegas, high schoolers in Parkland, Fla. and Jews praying at a synagogue in Pittsburgh last month.
The most recent tragedy occurred Wednesday night at a bar in Thousand Oaks, Calif., where authorities say a Marine combat veteran killed 12 people before fatally shooting himself.
One of the victims, 27-year-old Telemachus Orfanos, survived last year’s Las Vegas massacre but was killed in the Thousand Oaks shooting.
“I don’t want prayers. I don’t want thoughts. I want gun control, and I hope to God nobody else sends me anymore prayers,” Orfanos’s mother, Susan Orfanos, said in an emotional interview with KABC that has been viewed millions of times on social media. “I want gun control. No more guns.”
The rash of devastating episodes shifted public sentiment in strong favor of gun reform, and polls show overwhelming support for measures like expanded background checks among voters of all political stripes.
Among the host of Democrats elected to the House on Tuesday in conservative districts, many embraced new restrictions on gun purchases without facing the previously feared backlash at the polls.
“The public has evolved on their belief about this, given the magnitude and disparity of gun violence and mass shootings,” Quigley said Friday by phone.
The Democrats’ plans for gun-reform legislation remain unclear.
Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), the head of the party’s task force to prevent gun violence, has taken the lead on the background check bill, and will likely do so again next year. There are also dozens of related proposals other lawmakers will surely promote, including bills to ban bump stocks, eliminate assault weapons, spike taxes on guns and ammunition and prohibit high-capacity magazines like the one allegedly used by the shooter in Thousand Oaks.
Quigley is all for pushing bold reforms, including a ban on assault weapons, but is promoting the idea of securing early victories on more popular measures.
“Let’s start where we have some commonality,” he said. “The vast majority of Americans, the majority of gun owners, the majority of NRA [National Rifle Association] members support universal background checks.
“That’s a good place to start.”
That the House will pass some kind of background-checks legislation is clear. But any new gun restrictions face tall odds in the GOP-controlled Senate, where Republicans are near-unanimous in their opposition to such reforms.
In 2013, in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) authored legislation to expand background checks for firearms purchased online and at gun shows. It fell six votes short of overcoming a GOP-led filibuster, with only four Republicans — Toomey, and Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), John McCain (Ariz.) and Mark Kirk (Ill.) — supporting the measure.
Kirk lost his reelection bid in 2016 and McCain died this year, leaving just two Senate Republicans who back strengthening background checks. Manchin just won reelection this week and Toomey isn’t up for reelection until 2022.
“Senator Toomey is continuing to work with his colleagues in the Senate to find a path forward to 60 votes for his background check legislation,” said Toomey spokesman Sam Fischer.
Complicating the math for gun reform supporters, Tuesday’s midterms added to the GOP Senate majority, and the incoming Republicans are all gun-rights promoters supported heavily by the firearms lobby.
Asked about the appropriate response to the Thousand Oaks shooting, Sen.-elect Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) was terse.
“What we do is say, how do we make certain that we protect the Second Amendment and protect our citizens?” Blackburn told Fox News on Thursday.
President Trump could be a wild card in the coming gun debate. The president has a long and conflicting history on the topic, from promotion of an assault-weapons ban years ago to a more recent embrace of the Second Amendment protectionism advocated by the NRA.
Gun-reform advocates, long accustomed to congressional inaction on the issue, say they’ve been encouraged by what they’ve heard from Pelosi and other Democratic leaders so far.
“While so many other factors have not been settled, we believe that House Democrats will move universal background checks in early 2019,” said Robin Lloyd, government affairs director for the Courage to Fight Gun Violence, the gun-reform group led by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), the congresswoman shot in the head in Tucson in 2011.