Tuesday, September 17, 2019

After string of mass shootings, Democrats begin new push for gun control

  • >> Sheryl Gay Stolberg, The New York Times Reuters
    Published: 2019-09-11 11:57:04 BdST

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Caption: Rep Lucy Kay McBath and Rep Mike Thompson attending a rally organised by Everytown for Gun Safety outside the Capitol in Washington, Sept 10, 2019. The New York Times.

 Washington’s nascent debate over gun safety devolved into a partisan round of name-calling Tuesday, as Democrats and Republicans accused one another of playing politics with a life-or-death issue, dimming hopes for a quick compromise to address the wave of mass shootings that have terrorised the country.

On their first full day back in the Capitol after a lengthy August recess, Democrats sought to intensify political pressure on Republicans to embrace tougher gun restrictions, while also laying the foundation for making gun violence a central issue of their 2020 campaigns should a compromise falter. House Democrats pushed forward with new legislation a new package of gun restrictions, including a bill that would ban the manufacture and sale of large-capacity magazines, and sharpened their calls for Sen Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, the majority leader, to take up a bill they approved in February expanding background checks to all gun buyers.

But McConnell insisted, as he has in the past, that he would not take up any legislation unless President Donald Trump agreed to sign it into law. Speaking to reporters at the Capitol, he took aim at his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Chuck Schumer, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, dismissing their demands as a “stunt.” Trump, he noted, had long ago said he would veto the House-passed background check bill.

“You all, I know, do cover theatrics,” he told reporters. “But on a serious issue like this, after these horrendous shootings dominating the month of August, at least we could come back with a level of seriousness that underscored that maybe we would like to get an outcome. And so we do, in fact, await word from the White House about what the president is willing to sign.”

Schumer, asked to respond, sounded furious.

“Shame on him,” he said, his voice rising. “Shame on him. There are people who died. Put the bill on the floor and stop ducking the issue. Shame on him.”

On Monday, Pelosi said there would be “hell to pay” for McConnell, Trump and Republicans if they failed to pass the background check bill.

The bitter back-and-forth in the Senate left the fate of gun safety legislation murky, with Trump sending mixed signals about where he stands. The White House has been in talks with a bipartisan group of senators on a series of gun-related measures, including a background check bill, as well as others measures that might be more palatable to the National Rifle Association.

Republican leaders, who like McConnell are reluctant to endorse any measure without the president expressing a willingness to go along, met with Trump on Tuesday afternoon at the White House.

Rep Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 House Republican, said that gun violence was discussed at the meeting but suggested that Republicans were more interested in making the existing background check system “work better” than they were in expanding it. He also took a dig at Pelosi and Democrats, using a well-worn Republican talking point.

“Do the Democrats actually want to solve problems,” he said, “or do they just want to be more aggressive in taking away people’s guns?”

But at least one Republican, Sen. Patrick J Toomey of Pennsylvania, who is leading a push for a bipartisan background check bill in the Senate, struck an optimistic note. Toomey, whose bill fell to a filibuster in 2013, said he has spoken with Trump about a half-dozen times and described the president as “very engaged.”

Toomey said some newly elected Republicans were open to his measure and that other Republicans who previously voted against it were rethinking their positions. And without explicitly saying so, he seemed to reject McConnell’s notion that senators should not consider a bill unless it had a chance of becoming law.

“This is the kind of thing where you might actually have to have a vote to find out where the votes are,” Toomey said.

Gun safety has rocketed to the top of Washington’s agenda after a string of mass shootings in August — three in Texas alone. According to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks gun violence in the United States, there have been 283 mass shootings so far in 2019. Mass shootings are defined as those in which four or more people were killed or injured, excluding the perpetrators.

On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee approved its gun safety package, the first step toward bringing it to the floor for a vote. It includes a so-called red-flag law aimed at making it easier for law enforcement to take away guns from those deemed dangerous by a judge; a measure barring people convicted of hate crimes from buying guns; and legislation barring, for civilian use, magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds.

“We are not taking these additional actions simply to respond to mass shootings,” said Rep Jerry Nadler, D-NY, the committee chairman, adding, “We are acting because of the urgent need to respond to the daily toll of gun violence in our communities, whether they are mass shootings or not, whether or not they make headlines.”

But Rep Doug Collins of Georgia, the senior Republican on the committee, said each of the bills would infringe on Americans’ Second Amendment rights, and he raised “serious due process problems” with the red flag law.

The central figure in the debate, though, remains Trump. The president’s statements on gun safety have been “all over the lot,” Schumer said Monday.

The president initially expressed support in early August for “very meaningful background checks” after deadly mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, but stopped short of endorsing the bill passed by the House. Then, as has been his pattern, Trump’s resolve appeared to weaken after talks with gun rights advocates.

Senate Democrats involved in the White House talks said it remained unclear what Trump might accept.

“It’s encouraging — they’re still talking,” said one of those Democrats, Sen Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who was a chief sponsor of a background check bill that fell to a Senate filibuster in 2013.

But Sen Christopher S Murphy, D-Conn, who is also involved in the talks, said he was concerned the effort could collapse if Republicans demanded a package of measures, as opposed to a stand-alone vote on a background check bill.

“I’ve expressed my worry to the White House the package could get so big that it could all fall apart,” he said.

c.2019 The New York Times Company