Baby Steps for Gun Reform

If there are any new restrictions on firearms, expect them to be minor.

President Trump meets with bipartisan members of Congress to discuss school and community safety on February 28, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

It’s easy to grow jaded about the dysfunctionality of the legislative branch. Meaningful progress is increasingly the exception rather than the rule, especially on issues that are divisive and complicated—which these days means pretty much all issues. So despite all the hubbub of late, there’s reason to be skeptical Congress will do much to reform gun-safety laws.

Plenty of smart folks seem optimistic that this time will be different—that the activism of the Parkland survivors is fueling a public outcry that will compel Congress to get serious about addressing America’s gun-violence problem.

Lawmakers across the ideological spectrum clearly have been feeling the heat. Republican leadership has assured the public that it is committed to passing post-Parkland reforms ASAP. Message: We hear your outrage, and we are on it.

Except that there’s nothing in Congress even approaching agreement, not merely about how best to address the problem of gun violence, but about what the problem even is. Case in point: Never do American politicians express such concern about the nation’s mental health as when there’s a movement afoot to tighten gun laws.

It is, in fact, notable that Republicans have been touting their commitment to “school safety.” “We’re gonna do a lot on school safety,” Representative Steve Stivers, head of the NRCC, told The Hill on Monday. “Part of that’s gun stuff, but part of that’s school safety stuff.” To reiterate: House Republicans do not consider school-safety issues to be the same as gun issues—and they are more focused on the former than the latter.

If anything moves on the gun front, expect it to be minor. The measure widely seen as having the best chance at passage aims to improve background checks for gun purchases. But to be clear: Congress is not looking to close the so-called gun-show loophole in a move toward universal background checks. (This is a reform that polls indicate the overwhelming majority of Americans support. ) The proposal currently under discussion merely seeks to improve reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Now, finding a way to keep the NICS database more up to date would be a useful step, but a baby step at best.

And even this could prove tricky—despite the fact that even the NRA supports the proposal. Legislation to fix the database, known as the Fix NICS Act, passed the House in December, but Republicans linked it to a controversial provision that would allow concealed-carry permits to hold sway across state lines. From a gun-control perspective, this wouldn’t constitute a baby step forward so much as one baby step forward and three daddy steps back. Post-Parkland, the House Freedom Caucus has indicated it might be willing to separate the two measures—but only if reform advocates satisfy the caucus’s concerns about due process. Meanwhile, Senator Mike Lee has, on similar due-process ground, put a hold on a bill containing the measure. Senator Rand Paul has voiced his opposition as well.

Another broadly popular reform being contemplated: outlawing bump stocks, which enable semiautomatic rifles to be fired at close to the rate of fully automatic ones. This restriction gained support in the wake of last year’s massacre at a country music festival in Las Vegas that killed 58 people. But then came the squabbling over whether the matter should be dealt with via legislation or regulation—Congress (and the NRA) wanted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to handle things, while the ATF preferred a legislative solution—and things swiftly fell apart.

Post-Parkland, Trump has directed the Department of Justice to find a way to outlaw bump stocks. But first, the department will need to figure out whether even has the authority to do so. Previously, the ATF had said that, since the devices do not technically turn a semiautomatic into an automatic (with a bump stock, the trigger still needs to be depressed multiple times), they are not subject to regulation. The bureau has been asked to reconsider this ruling. Such a change, however, is expected to land the government in a prolonged legal battle with gun manufacturers.

Meanwhile, congressional Democrats are arguing that legislation is required to address the bump-stock situation. But Republicans aren’t exactly leaping to seize ownership of the matter. And since Trump has now put Attorney General Jeff Sessions theoretically in charge of the issue, don’t be surprised if many members are happy to sit back and let the DOJ keep handling this.

Trump has also endorsed raising the age limit for purchasing semiautomatic rifles to 21—a move he assured Americans that the NRA would support. Alas, the NRA apparently did not get that memo and has been pushing back rather aggressively. Also skeptical of such a measure is Senator John Cornyn, the number-two ranking Republican in the Senate. Cornyn has publicly cautioned that raising the age limit wouldn’t necessarily save lives, wouldn’t “get at the root of the problem”—and probably lacks the votes to pass the Senate anyway.

The prospects are far less promising for stronger reforms—like a ban of semiautomatic rifles (legislation for which a supermajority of House Democrats are supporting) or restrictions on high-capacity magazines. During the February 21 CNN Town Hall, Florida Senator Marco Rubio said he would consider supporting a ban on such magazines. But as Rubio learned during his past foray into immigration reform, it can be tough to stand up to an outraged party base—which the NRA is exceedingly adept at mobilizing. And during that same town hall, Rubio refused to reject future donations from the gun-rights group. So it seems unlikely he’ll start pushing controversial reforms any time soon—especially during a high-stakes midterm election cycle.

There is, of course, an argument to be made that, with control of Congress on the line this year, members are more vulnerable than usual to reform pressure. Except that midterm races are about motivating the parties’ base voters. Again, the NRA is a master of this—and of waving fat wads of campaign cash under needy lawmakers’ noses. More broadly, legislative fights over new gun laws would be high-profile and contentious. GOP leadership is loath to put its troops in the position of taking awkward votes. Politically speaking, it’s best for members of the anxious majority to keep the reform debates as limited as possible.

Some Republican lawmakers have been upfront about their lack of interest in changing gun laws. Senator Ted Cruz’s quick-draw response to Parkland was to slam Democrats for politicizing the tragedy. Speaker Paul Ryan promptly warned against any “knee-jerk” response from policymakers. Multiple Republicans have been issuing warnings about how Congress shouldn’t rush to pass laws that won’t do any good. “These are feel-good measures that aren’t going to solve the problem,” Montana Senator Steve Daines said this week of efforts to ban bump-stocks, raise age limits, and impose universal background checks.  (That last one, of course, is not seriously on the table.)

Republicans have also begun engaging in some political flank-covering, noting that, on a topic this touchy, any reforms will need the full and enthusiastic backing of the president to succeed.

But thus far, Trump’s incoherence on the issue has served only to throw the debate into chaos. One minute he’s talking about arming teachers and touting his love for the “good people” at the NRA. The next, he’s holding a televised sit-down with lawmakers, in which he suggests he’s open to tighter restrictions on assault weapons, opposes the concealed-carry reciprocity part of the Fix NICS Act, wants a more “comprehensive” background-check measure, and ridiculing a GOP senator for being “afraid of the NRA.” His call to “take the gun first, go through due-process second” played especially poorly with Republicans.

Following House Republicans’ closed-door conference Tuesday, Ryan emerged with this to tell reporters: “We shouldn’t be banning guns for law-abiding citizens. We should be focused on making sure that citizens who should not have guns in the first place don’t get those guns.” He voiced his support for Trump’s call to arm teachers—though he feels the decision should be left up to state and local officials. He also said that Parkland had spotlighted the need for better oversight of law enforcement. “There were a lot of breakdowns from local law enforcement to the FBI getting tips that they didn’t follow up on to school resource officers who were trained to protect kids in these schools and who didn’t do that.”

Such remarks provide further clarity for anyone wondering about the difference between school-safety issues and gun issues, and just how little taste the GOP majority has for the latter.

Indeed, post-conference meeting, the House seemed happy to boot the entire sticky issue to the Senate. A senior House Republican aide emailed me to say that “the House has acted and leaders now believe that it’s the Senate’s turn to act.” (Translation: Whatever does or does not happen, blame Mitch McConnell.) As for the actions already taken, the aide bullet-pointed three “House-passed measures in response to previous shootings.”

  • Mental health legislation (in Cures). [The 21 Century Cures Act is a broad-based biomedical bill that includes increased funding for mental health care.]
  • Tightened up NICS in House bill waiting action in the Senate. [See above on this baby step.]
  • Directed ATF to review bump stocks in same legislation above.  [Ditto.]

This doesn’t sound like a conference raring to rethink much of anything post-Parkland.

Congressional Democrats apparently felt the same. Representative Bill Pascrell publicly slammed Ryan for having “lost his guts.” Steny Hoyer, the number-two Democrat in the House, lashed out at Ryan’s refusal to allow a floor debate on universal background checks.

“It is entirely possible that Republicans evade responsibility entirely and do nothing,” a senior House Democratic aide emailed me Tuesday afternoon. “Ryan’s comments today that he’s not going to micromanage [any reform effort] are shocking. Such a weak Speaker. But of course he sides with his master, Trump, on having teachers carry guns.”

Then again, maybe the Senate will find a way forward. After all, polls show that even a majority of Republicans now favor tighter gun restrictions. Even so, and with all due respect to the herculean effort of the #NeverAgain movement, if Congress takes more than a baby step forward on this topic, in this midst of this unusually toxic political climate, it won’t be surprising. It’ll be astonishing.