Shootings in Texas and Ohio that left over 30 people dead this past weekend have left the country reeling and crying out for a solution. But lawmakers in Washington have so far been unable to unify around a legislative fix – and precedent suggests they will not reach a compromise.
Since the shootings there have been bipartisan overtures, particularly when it comes to limited background checks and red flag laws, which allow for the forcible removal of firearms in certain circumstances. But overall, there appear to be two legislative lanes. Democrats want universal background checks – with some pushing for a ban on assault weapons – while Republicans continue to advocate on policies independent of guns, like mental health.
These are more or less the fault lines that have dominated the debate on gun control for years, and lawmakers are making no pretense about the fact that neither might succeed legislatively.
“[The 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school] was all young kids. [The 2017 shooting in Las Vegas] was all people out for a night. [The 1999 shooting at Columbine High School] was all high school kids. These are all horrific tragedies. And yet, in the political world, in the media world, in the world we live in, those issues fade, I hate to say it, after three or four weeks,” said Republican Rep. Peter King. As one of the few Republicans who supports universal background checks, King said the onus would be on the President to ensure gun control remains in the national conversation, and that he should use his platform to push for background checks.
Trump had indicated early Monday morning that he would support legislation strengthening background checks, tweeting that he wanted to pair the policy with immigration reform. But when he addressed the nation from the White House several hours later, he never mentioned that idea. Instead, he pushed for policies like crackdowns on violent video games and mental health reform.
It was the strongest sign yet that both parties would stay in their respective lanes. Shortly after Trump’s address, Democrats continued their renewed push to convince Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring his chamber back to Washington from the August recess to vote on legislation the House of Representatives had passed in February expanding and strengthening background checks. Since McConnell had not scheduled a vote on the two bills or referred them to the requisite committees, they have remained dormant in the Senate for months.
“It is incumbent upon the Senate to come back into session to pass this legislation immediately,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer said in a joint statement Aug. 5.
The strategy of attacking McConnell continued through Monday. In a conference call with her colleagues, Pelosi emphasized the importance of pushing him to hold this vote, noting that the request for pressure was coming from victims of gun violence.
“One family of Joaquin Oliver [a victim of the 2018 shooting in Parkland, Fla.] his father Manny and his mother Patricia, were in El Paso for the son’s birthday,” she recounted Monday, according to an aide on the call. “He and others like him are saying, ‘Mitch McConnell. Mitch McConnell. Mitch McConnell. Help us make Mitch McConnell bring up this bill.’ We have to get this bill passed and Mitch McConnell is the roadblock to it.”
But if anyone is impervious to external pressure – particularly from the opposing party – it is the Senate majority leader. McConnell, who is recuperating in his home state of Kentucky after fracturing his shoulder, has given no signal he will heed the Democrats’ call. “[McConnell] contacted Sens. Cornyn and Portman to express his deepest sympathies for the people of El Paso and Dayton and discuss the senseless tragedies of this weekend,” his office said in a statement on Sunday announcing his injury. “The leader will continue to work from home.”
McConnell is also not feeling any pressure from members of his own party to hold a vote on this bill – or even return to Washington at all. Democrats have been touting the background check as a bi-partisan bill, but only eight of 197 House Republicans voted for it. King, who was one of the eight, acknowledged that even if McConnell did hold a vote, the bill would fail to garner the necessary 60 votes for passage.
The majority leader issued another statement Monday evening, stating that he had discussed the President’s priorities with several Senate committee chairs and “encouraged them to engage in bipartisan discussions of potential solutions to help protect our communities without infringing on Americans’ constitutional rights.”
He made no mention of the House Democrats’ legislation and the calls to return to the Capitol.
But even Republican senators who have offered legislative solutions that may be more palatable are also not pushing for a quick return to Washington. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who chairs the chamber’s Judiciary Committee announced Monday that he and Sen. Richard Blumenthal would introduce legislation providing grants to states adopting Red Flag’ Protection Orders, which permit forced temporary removals of weapons if a person is deemed a risk. But even though Graham said he would be introducing the bill “in the very near future,” he did not mention a return from recess.
And Sen. Pat Toomey intensified calls to pass six-year old legislation he introduced with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin in 2013 that would expand background checks. But Toomey, who said he spoke with McConnell Monday, argued that having lawmakers return to Washington would be “counterproductive.”
“What I think is most important is we build support for something,” he said. “This isn’t going to happen tomorrow. And if we force a vote tomorrow it would probably fail and we would set back this whole effort.”
King said the best path to forging a compromise in Congress, particularly when it came to background checks, was through Trump himself. “The President’s changed a lot of Republican [positions] over the last few years,” he said. “If anyone can do it, he can do it.”