A Conservative Showdown Over Gun Control

Disagreement among House Republicans might be a sign of deeper division ahead.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Gun control, terrorism, and constitutional rights have coalesced to create a complicated set of concerns that have left House Republicans struggling to find common ground. The deaths of two black men at the hands of police officers, and the murder of five police officers in Dallas, Texas, have brought renewed attention to a national debate over gun policy. Yet nearly a month after a terrorist attack at an Orlando nightclub, House Republicans remain deeply divided over how to respond. The discord on display may be a sign of hardening conservative battle lines—and that would spell trouble for House Speaker Paul Ryan.

House Democrats called for expanding background checks for gun sales and preventing firearms from falling into the hands of suspected terrorists after the Orlando attack. House Republicans have not seemed quite sure how to react to the demands. When GOP leadership unveiled counterterrorism legislation that included a provision aimed at keeping guns away from terror suspects, critics on the left and the right piled on. Democrats dismissed the bill as toothless. Meanwhile, the conservative House Freedom Caucus criticized the legislation for “failing to do enough to address the threat of radical Islamic terrorism” and including “gun control provisions that fail to adequately protect due process.”

So far, conservative criticism has appeared to win out. Ryan signaled more work needed to be done to find common ground with his fellow Republicans on Thursday, despite reports that he had planned to hold a vote on the bill that week. “We’re trying to get this legislation right. We’re trying to reflect the consensus of our conference so that we can bring a bill to the floor that deals with this violence, that deals with terrorism,” he said at a press conference. “We’re not going to rush it. ”

It’s nothing new for conservative members of the House—and the House Freedom Caucus in particular—to protest the actions of Republican leaders. But factions within the House Republican coalition may grow increasingly divided with Donald Trump as the de facto Republican standard-bearer, argues Matt Mayer, a visiting fellow at the free-market oriented American Enterprise Institute. The reason? Trump’s presence at the top of the ticket creates more uncertainty than there might be during a typical presidential election for a variety of reasons such as his willingness to court controversy, stray from conservative orthodoxy, and the fact that he so far appears to be a weak general-election candidate.

That constellation of factors creates incentives for rank-and-file House Republicans to stray from the demands of GOP leaders and more strenuously emphasize the agenda that they believe constituents of their individual districts want enacted. “Republican lawmakers have more incentive now to double down and harden their position than look to GOP leaders for cues and work toward consensus simply for the sake of unity,” Mayer said.

For conservative members of the House Freedom Caucus, Trump’s rise to the top of the GOP presidential field is likely to be interpreted as a sign that bucking the establishment is a recipe for political success. That does, in fact, seem to be the lesson that at least some House conservatives have taken away from primary season: “The American people in the presidential elections this year are going for outsiders in record numbers because they want us to get something done up here that makes common sense,” Dave Brat, a Freedom caucus member and congressman from Virginia who defeated former Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a shocking upset, said. He criticized the impulse of the Republican Party to “bend over backward and appease.”

Moderate Republicans are unlikely to imitate Trump's anti-establishment impulses in quite the same way, but they too may be compelled to double down on their agenda in a way that could ultimately make consensus more difficult. Trump could prove politically toxic to moderate Republicans up for election in November. To win over voters, moderates may feel the need to go even further than they normally would to prove loyalty to their constituents. “In a moderate district, you’re thinking ‘Trump could cost me my seat so I have to be in lock step with my district’,” Mayer said. “That causes them to harden in moderation in a similar way to where more conservative members will be saying, ‘Well, people are so angry with Washington, I should double down in that fight, because I’ll be rewarded.’”

Those dynamics could make it harder for House GOP leaders to negotiate among competing factions. "There will be a temptation to let our anger harden our divisions. Let's not let that happen," Ryan said on Friday, in remarks addressing the tragedy in Dallas. “There’s going to be a temptation to let our anger send us further into our corners. Let’s not let that happen. That script is just too easy to write. It’s too predictable. Let’s defy those predictions,” he implored. For now, however, it’s not clear that House Republicans will be able to agree on the best plan of action when it comes to gun control and terrorism.