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Gun Rights Groups Mobilizing to Counter Gun Control Bills, Either in the Senate or in the Courts

6 minute read

From the five shot and killed at a Tulsa, Okla., hospital on Wednesday, to the 22 slain at a Uvalde, Texas elementary school on May 24, to the 10 left dead by a racially motivated shooting spree at a Buffalo, New York grocery store on May 14, the spate of horrific mass shootings over the last month has drawn a new round of calls for federal lawmakers to tighten the country’s gun control laws.

But as congressional leaders from both parties explore what they might be able to actually pass, multiple gun-rights groups tell TIME they are ramping up their own efforts to oppose anything that would be viewed as gun control—by pressuring Republicans to stand firmly against the proposals, and, if needed, taking the Biden administration to court to prevent potential new laws from being enacted.

“Our communication with members of the House and Senate tell us that Biden and the anti-gun rights Democrats have not gained ground in their push for new restrictions,” says Alan Gottlieb, the founder of the pro-gun Second Amendment Foundation. “They control the House but will not fare well in the Senate.”

While powerful Republicans like Sen. John Cornyn of Texas have spoken optimistically of Congress advancing some proposals intended to restrict future mass shootings, leading gun rights advocates say they remain convinced that those efforts won’t yield any new gun control measures.

“We empower our members to hold Congress accountable,” says Aidan Johnston, the director of federal affairs for Gun Owners of America, citing his organization’s involvement in quashing similar efforts in Congress after the mass shootings at Sandy Hook elementary in 2012 and a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in 2019. “That’s how our members will hold Congress accountable should any bipartisan compromise on our rights be proposed in the coming days.”

In the aftermath of the Uvalde shooting, Democrats in the House have discussed multiple proposals, including raising the age requirement to purchase a semi-automatic rifle to 21, banning high-capacity magazines, and codifying a federal rule change requiring a background check for buying untraceable firearms that can be bought as a kit and assembled at home (often called “ghost guns”). But none of those measures are likely to draw the needed 60 votes in the Senate, where both parties control 50 seats.

The proposals that stand a chance of getting through both chambers are limited in scope. A bipartisan group of Senators are considering ideas like appropriating funding to help communities expand mental health services and encouraging states to adopt red flag laws, which can allow law-enforcement officials to temporarily seize firearms from individuals deemed a threat to themselves of others.

Seventy percent of Americans support red flag laws, according to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, and more than half of Americans support stronger gun control laws in general.

“There have always been limitations on what weapons you can own in America,” Biden said in a rare primetime address Thursday evening. “For example, machine guns have been federally regulated for nearly 90 years, and this is still a free country. This isn’t about taking away anyone’s rights. It’s about protecting children. It’s about protecting families. It’s about protecting whole communities.”

Representatives with Gun Owners of America, the Second Amendment Foundation, and the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) strongly disagree, saying many—if not all—of the House proposals infringe on existing constitutional rights and judicial precedent.

Raising the age for purchasing semi-automatic weapons, for example, may go against a recent decision by a federal appeal court to overturn a California ban on sales of semiautomatic rifles to adults younger than 21.

Limiting semi-automatic gun sales for 18-20 year olds may also violate the Second Amendment, says Mark Oliva, NSSF’s director of public affairs. “When you turn 18, you’re an adult, fully vested in all your rights, all your civil liberties,” he says. “We wouldn’t tell an 18 year old or a 20 year old that they can’t express their views, or redress the government, or worship in the manner that they chose at the church that they choose, or the synagogue, or mosque, at 20 years old. But we’re relegating the Second Amendment to a second-class right if we do that.”

Gottlieb, of the Second Amendment Foundation, says his organization would challenge such an age restriction in court.

House efforts to prevent the sale of ghost gun kits would legally codify an existing regulation by the Biden Administration. Opponents of the change, like Oliva, say it is also unconstitutional. “Even before the founding of the country, you always had that right to make a gun for yourself for private use in your home,” he says.

The gun rights groups are also turning their attention to red flag laws, pointing out scenarios in which the existence of such a law did not prevent a mass shooting.

“New York State has a red flag law and it failed,” says Johnston, referring to the grocery store shooting in Buffalo.

Multiple legal experts anticipate that gun rights activists will gain even more fodder to fight against even modest gun control measures in the next couple of weeks, when the Supreme Court is expected to release its ruling on a challenge to a New York law requiring residents show “proper cause” for obtaining licenses to carry guns outside their homes.

The court’s looming decision on this case will significantly “influence the strength or weakness” of any future challenges to the gun control proposals Congress is considering, says Darrell Miller, a law professor at Duke University and a co-director of the Duke Center for Firearms Law.

Robert Spitzer, the author of six books on gun policy, predicts the Justices’ opinion will strengthen the arguments of groups like Gun Owners of America and the Second Amendment Foundation, which previously gained more legal protections when the Court struck down Washington, D.C.’s handgun ban in 2008.

“I’m convinced that a five-member majority is poised to expand the definition of gun rights beyond that set out in the 2008 case and such a ruling would invite a new round of court challenges,” he says. “From most to least vulnerable: assault weapons age restrictions, then ammo magazine limits, then red flag laws.”

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Write to Abby Vesoulis at abby.vesoulis@time.com