'I Think We Have a Leadership Problem'

Growing numbers of congressional Republicans are pressing for action on guns.

Eric Thayer / Reuters

Wednesday marked just one month since a 19-year-old man opened fire in a Parkland, Florida, high school and murdered 17 people. One month since Twitter brimmed with thoughts and prayers from some, and renewed calls for gun control from others. And one month since President Donald Trump told lawmakers he didn’t want to wait “two weeks, three weeks, four weeks” to address gun violence in America, when “people sort of forget and we go on.”

After past mass shootings, the rapid-fire news cycle has indeed helped exempt lawmakers from uncomfortable discussions on gun violence. But in the aftermath of the Parkland massacre, students have helped keep the issue alive. And as Trump has backtracked on proposals he supported one month ago, including universal background checks and some kind of assault-weapons ban, reporters are continuing to ask questions.

As many Americans call for tighter gun laws after a mass shooting, Republicans are usually silent. According to the Republican lawmakers I spoke to for this story, there are several reasons why this is the case, from fears of primary challengers to the gun lobby. But, in the wake of the Parkland shooting, an increasing number of Republicans appear ready to abandon these concerns in favor of a more proactive response to gun violence. Now, they’re eager for their leadership to do the same, meaning an issue that has long united the party could suddenly expose even more rifts in an already fractured conference.

“There is a genuine lack of serious discussion on these issues,” Representative Thomas Massie of Kentucky, who chairs the Second Amendment Caucus, told me. “Our leadership seems like the sheriff deputies at the Florida shooting: They don’t want to go in and take fire, and instead just hope the issue will burn itself out.”

I spent the day after the Parkland shooting trying to find a Republican to talk to me about the massacre and how he or she thought Congress should respond. Only one member, Representative Joe Barton of Texas—who was on the field during last summer’s congressional baseball shooting—agreed. Barton was remarkably candid in our conversation, and said he was “sad” and “confused” about why his colleagues seemed to have once again gone quiet.

Barton also happens to be retiring.

There is an obvious truth that lawmakers are more willing to speak up after they’ve announced plans to retire. But there’s also a truth most won’t acknowledge on the record—that their chances of another term could be jeopardized by wading into an emotionally fraught debate.

This seemed especially relevant after the Parkland shooting. As expected, lawmakers scrambled to their corners. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi tweeted that Congress had a “moral responsibility” to take “common sense action” to prevent “the daily tragedy of gun violence in communities across America.” The next morning, Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters that Congress should “take a breath and collect the facts.”

In the weeks that followed, I continued to reach out to Republicans; perhaps sensing the issue’s staying power, more of them agreed to talk. Representative Tom Reed of New York told me that, until lawmakers stop worrying about getting reelected, mass shootings will continue. He put it plainly: “A lot of members are just afraid to lead on this issue because of how it can motivate a primary opponent.”

Reed has been busy since the shooting. He’s held three town halls to discuss his controversial proposal of “forced treatment” for the mentally ill and school-safety measures. “We always talk about the individual behind the gun,” he told me. “It’s time we back that up with action.”

“The problem our leadership faces is how polarized the conference can be on these things,” he added. “But if we just start to lead on this issue, I think the politics will take care of themselves.”

It’s a nice enough sentiment, and Reed seems to believe it. But he represents a blue-state district with a mix of suburban and rural voters. For Reed, a proactive legislative response to the American problem of mass shootings is not so politically perilous; in those town halls, he does not contend just with voters who hunt on weekends, who prize guns for recreation.

Those who represent deeply red districts face a more uniform swath of voters. In Alabama, for example, where I grew up, the Second Amendment is not so much a right as an inviolable element of culture—lawmakers are not wrong to believe that challenging this, however slightly, could spell political suicide.

Representative Brian Mast of Florida understands these political pressures, but in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, he no longer finds them a compelling defense against tighter gun laws. An Army veteran who lost both legs in Afghanistan, Mast may be evidence that some in Congress are shedding their political fear of guns. On February 23, he published an op-ed in The New York Times announcing his support for a ban on assault weapons. “I cannot support the primary weapon I used to defend our people being used to kill children I swore to defend,” he wrote. He also declared his support for background checks on all gun purchases, a ban on bump-stocks, and a ban on firearm purchases by those who have been declared mentally ill.

Mast acknowledged to me that he may have made himself politically vulnerable in his bid for reelection. “I’ve literally lost friends over this,” he told me. “And I said, you know what, someone is probably going to primary me over this, but you don’t worry about being a casualty when you’re trying to save a life.”

Mast’s op-ed was striking not so much for the positions it took, but for its simple existence. It’s unclear whether an assault-weapons ban—or any currently proposed gun-control measure, for that matter—would have prevented what happened in Parkland. But it is notable that Mast is taking a public stance, that he broke through the cloud of rhetoric about “conversations” that, fairly or unfairly, causes many Americans to perceive Republicans as silent on gun violence.

“We’ve become desensitized to killing in a very unhealthy way,” Mast told me. “I’ve seen people bleed out, cry for their families, their tissue laying around them …”

He paused for a moment, then said: “I think this time will be different. It feels different.”

This time may feel different to Mast, to Reed, to a whole host of other Republicans I spoke to. But whether it does to their congressional leadership is another question.

I talked to nearly a dozen Republicans in the House and Senate for this story, and heard nearly a dozen different proposals for how to curb gun violence and mass shootings. They all said they wanted GOP leadership to address gun violence in a meaningful way. It’s not possible to have conversations, they told me, if there’s nothing on the table to talk about. (Only two lawmakers brought up the one measure that leadership has backed—the so-called Fix NICS bill, which would improve the reporting of criminal convictions to the National Instant Criminal Background Check system. The House recently passed the bill, coupled with a proposal allowing someone with a concealed-carry permit in one state to carry in other states.)

Massie is among the few conservative members who want to repeal the Gun-Free School Act of 1990, which makes it a crime to have a gun within a thousand feet of a school. In his view, the best way to prevent the next school shooting is “to be prepared for it,” and that means allowing teachers to carry guns. “The fact is, the issue [of school shootings] won’t go away,” he told me. “But what would curb it is having these people walk in, fire a few bullets, and then end up on the floor dead.”

Recent polling suggests that most Americans think arming teachers is a mistake. Massie acknowledged that his proposal is unpopular. But the important point, he said, is that he’s been out front with it: making frequent appearances on NBC, CNN, and NPR, “trying to reach new audiences with this message.”

He told me he wished leadership would do the same thing with their own proposals, whatever they may be. “I think we have a leadership problem here in the House. A real leader on this issue would be out in front doing what I’m doing,” he said. “I wouldn’t have to go on the Sunday shows if they were really leading on this issue instead of cowering and trying to insulate members from tough votes.” (AshLee Strong, a spokesman for Ryan, responded that the House “has already passed the Fix NICS bill” and is now waiting to see “what the Senate will do.”)

Yet even if more Republicans declare themselves open to a “tough vote,” and respond to political pressures in favor of something proactive, there’s little they can do if they can’t agree on a starting point. On most issues, Senate leadership likes to demonstrate a broad consensus and then schedule floortime, comfortable in the knowledge that the bill will pass. Senator Pat Toomey told me that lawmakers will have to figure it out before trying to convince Senate leadership that new gun laws deserve consideration. “There are a tremendous number of varied ideas and issues competing for time right now, and time is the most limited and precious commodity on the Senate floor,” he said. Until they have 60 votes on a piece of legislation, however modest in scope, “it’s hard to make the case to McConnell” that it deserves floor consideration.

Toomey added that he thought McConnell wanted to get gun legislation to the floor. “But I also think we need to be really honest about the fact that this is a complicated problem,” he said, referring to the intersection of gun control and mental health.

That’s what Toomey hopes senators can achieve with Fix NICS—that in two weeks, senators could be seriously debating new restrictions on gun purchases and more tightly regulated systems for information sharing among law enforcement.

Other Republicans I spoke to, however, said the time had come to stop lumping in gun violence with the rest of the “issues” Congress will tackle this year, as if it were a banking-reform package or a farm-bill extension. Ultimately, they said, the House and Senate leadership can decide to make addressing gun violence a priority if it wants to, whether from the angle of guns, mental health, or both.

Mast cited tax reform as an example, noting the extensive listening sessions, public-relations campaign, and persistent focus on the issue among Republicans in the fall.

“That’s how I would lead. I’d put the same focus and urgency on this as we did on tax reform,” he told me. “I wouldn’t wait for the Senate to do this, or the president to do that. We should be saying, as 435 members of the House, ‘Never again.’”

In the immediate aftermath of the Parkland shooting, Trump indicated he would pressure leadership to make gun violence a priority. In a meeting at the White House with lawmakers, he seemed to enthusiastically endorse universal background checks, expressed support for some sort of renewed assault-weapons ban, and said he wanted to make it harder for mentally ill people to get a gun.

Toomey called the event “a little bit chaotic,” but said he was heartened by Trump’s support of his own legislation with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, which expands background checks to online firearms sales and gun shows. “If the president vigorously supports it, that could really have a huge impact,” he told me.

To have the president express support for a measure is meaningful: It gives leadership cover to move ahead on legislation that may otherwise make their members skittish. Trump’s roundtable with lawmakers felt like momentum until it didn’t.

Just one day after that gathering, Trump met with the National Rifle Association’s top lobbyist, Chris Cox. He tweeted that it was a “Good (great) meeting.” Cox then assured his own Twitter followers: Trump and Vice President Mike Pence “don’t want gun control.” The White House then said next to nothing about these issues until Sunday, when Trump walked back his support for comprehensive background checks and hiking the age limit to buy certain weapons, tweeting that there was “not much political support.”

It was just two weeks ago that Trump rebuked Toomey for not including that age limit in his background-checks bill, saying he was “afraid of the NRA.” Then on Monday, from the briefing-room podium, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders declined to say whether Trump supported Manchin-Toomey at all.

Democrats like to pin a lot of Republicans’ inaction on gun violence on the gun lobby, and left-leaning social-media users like to post how much each Republican lawmaker receives in donations from the NRA. Republicans often complain that this is caustic and overstated. But  despite all the Republicans who appeared more willing to tackle gun violence after Parkland, the White House reversed course after the president met with Cox.

I asked Michael Hammond, chief counsel of Gun Owners of America, what he thought would happen with guns post-Parkland.

“Nothing,” he told me. Then he chuckled a bit, and said: “But you don’t pop the cork until they bang the gavel.”