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Where the gun control debate stands in Congress

At least four ideas are on the table.

Activists Rally At Florida State Capitol For Gun Law Reform Legislation
Activists hold up signs at the Florida State Capitol as they rally for gun reform legislation
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As Congress returns from recess this week, the big question is whether the shooting in Parkland, Florida, which killed at least 17 people, and injured more than a dozen others, will push Congress to actually do something on guns.

Republicans are talking about background checks, raising age limits on buying assault-style rifles, and maybe even beefing up the federal background check system — ideas that seemed unfathomable just a few months ago.

Last year, after what became the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history in Las Vegas, Congress didn’t act.

This time, student survivors sparked a movement that’s put Republicans, like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, on the spot over campaign donations from the National Rifle Association.

This time, a Republican White House seems to want to see a vote on some gun control legislation this week. President Donald Trump tweeted his support for comprehensive background checks — though he has since pivoted to supporting arming school teachers.

Lawmakers have yet to coalesce behind a bill. They’ve booked no time to take it up this week. So while pressure mounts, Congress isn’t making it clear: Is this like last time, and we’ll just wait until the next?

Here’s what Congress is talking about on gun control

With every mass shooting, Congress racks up an even longer list of gun control ideas. Since the Parkland shooting, several bipartisan proposals have dominated the conversation in the House and Senate:

1) A bill that would strengthen existing rules around the national background check system has garnered the most attention.

Many agencies consistently fail to report criminal records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) — the system gun sellers use to verify if someone is eligible to buy a gun. This bill would increase enforcement, step up requirements for federal and state agencies to update records, give states financial incentives to report to NICS, and penalize agencies that don’t upload their records.

The Fix NICS Act has bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress; it’s sponsored in the Senate by John Cornyn (R-TX), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Tim Scott (R-SC), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Dean Heller (R-NV), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH).

Reps. John Culberson (R-TX), Henry Cuellar (D-TX), Elizabeth Esty (D-CT), Ryan Costello (R-PA), and Pete Aguilar (D-CA) are sponsors in the House, where the bill has already passed in some form.

Last week, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced that Trump is supportive of the bill, which is a notable change from his position last year. However, Sanders also noted that discussions about the bill are ongoing and the text may be revised.

Even a bipartisan bill like Fix NICS faces an uphill battle in the Senate. In 2017, for example, Republicans largely voted along party lines to do away with an Obama-era regulation designed to keep guns out of the hands of some people with severe mental illness (Republican senators were joined by four Democrats in this vote). The regulation required the Social Security Administration to disclose information about some of its beneficiaries with mental illness to the national gun background check system.

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Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) is sponsoring a FixNICS bill.
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2) The 2013 “Toomey-Manchin” proposal expanding background checks could see yet another revival.

After the Sandy Hook massacre, Republican Sen. Pat Toomey (PA) and moderate Democrat Joe Manchin (WV) proposed an expansion of the current background check system for gun sales to gun shows. It failed when it was put up for a vote in 2013, and lost even more support in 2015 when it was put up for another vote.

Currently, only federally licensed gun dealers need to conduct background checks before making sales, and sales between family members, friends, and neighbors go unchecked — including online or at gun shows.

The Toomey-Manchin proposal would expand background checks to internet sales and gun shows while maintaining exceptions for family and friends, as long as there’s no online posting. The proposal, which does not have the support of gun rights groups, has repeatedly failed on the Senate floor. But with a renewed energy to act, Manchin and Toomey think their proposal could have another life — but not without Trump’s blessing.

“We’re not going to bring it back unless the president signs on,” Manchin said during a radio interview with West Virginia’s MetroNews. “I think it’s imperative that he has to get on board with what he feels he’s comfortable with.”

3) There is discussion around raising the minimum age to buy AR-15s from 18 to 21.

Last week, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) announced he and Feinstein were working on a Senate bill that would raise the minimum age to buy an AR-15 rifle to 21 for buyers who aren’t in the military.

Currently, federal law prohibits anyone under the age of 21 from purchasing a handgun from a licensed dealer but allows adults 18 or older to buy rifles. Trump has both said that he’s willing to support raising the minimum age and that the National Rifle Association would support it.

The NRA, however, is opposed:

“Legislative proposals that prevent law-abiding adults aged 18- 20-years-old from acquiring rifles and shotguns effectively prohibits them for purchasing any firearm, thus depriving them of their constitutional right to self-protection,” Jennifer Baker, an NRA spokesperson, said in a statement.

The White House has since said it is “not going to speak to potential legislation that doesn’t exist.”

4) The “bump stock” ban is back — maybe.

In the wake of the tragic mass shooting in Las Vegas, which left 59 dead and injured hundreds more, Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate proposed banning bump stocks — a device the Las Vegas shooter likely used to make his semiautomatic weapon function as a fully automatic one.

Feinstein sponsored the proposal in the Senate last October, and in the House, Reps. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) and Seth Moulton (D-MA) did the same.

At the time, the bump stock ban seemed narrow enough that Republicans could explain supporting it: Automatic weapons are mostly banned in the United States, and this device is essentially a loophole to that regulation. But the push eventually petered out.

The NRA originally said bump stocks should be “subject to additional regulations,” but clarified that any action should come from the Trump administration — not from Congress — a distinction that muddied hopes of any action in the legislative branch.

Trump told reporters Monday that he is open to taking action on bump stocks without Congress. But in 2013, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives — which many Republicans are calling on to ban bump stocks — said it did not have the authority to do so, as bump stocks on their own aren’t classified as firearms.

There are rumors of other, less formed ideas.

Outside of the proposed bills, there are reports of other, less concrete ideas, from increasing funding for police departments to giving law enforcement the authority to confiscate guns for a short period of time after reports of mental illness, domestic violence, or threats, according to Politico.

Trump said on Monday he supported the idea of making it easier for law enforcement to take away guns from people with mental illness, and of revitalizing mental institutions, implying states’ budget cuts were to blame.

“We’re going to have to start talking about mental institutions,” Trump said, adding that “in the old days,” it was easier to commit people who acted “like a boiler ready to explode” to mental institutions.

President Trump Holds Meeting on Supreme Court Nominee Gorsuch
President Donald Trump sits next to executive vice president and CEO of the National Rifle Association Wayne LaPierre.
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Congress is looking for the narrowest possible gun control legislation

The bill with the best chance of becoming law doesn’t make new gun laws — it enforces existing ones. That’s the Fix NICS Act, which aims to fix a disturbing trend in multiple mass shootings: There were existing gun laws that were poorly enforced.

Case in point: the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Under current law, all federal agencies, including the Defense Department, are supposed to upload certain conviction records into the system. That check is then run every time someone buys a gun to ensure he or she is eligible to buy a gun and doesn’t have a serious criminal conviction on their record.

But agencies don’t always submit the records and have failed to do so before a number of mass shootings. Cornyn once characterized the number of records sent to the FBI as “staggeringly low.” This is in part due to staffing issues; as Vox’s German Lopez wrote, “the federal background check system is also notoriously underfunded, understaffed, and underresourced, allowing red flags to slip through.”

Military conviction records are supposed to file into the system, but they frequently — even systemically — fall through the cracks. As ProPublica reported, a 2015 Pentagon report found the military failed to provide key records to the FBI in “about 30 percent of a sample of serious cases handled in military courts.”

The bill was introduced last year after a gunman killed 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. In the aftermath, the Air Force admitted that it had failed to submit criminal records that could have blocked the Texas shooter, an Air Force veteran, from buying a gun.

Under federal law, the shooter shouldn’t have been able to buy a gun because he’d been convicted in military court of assaulting his spouse and their child while in the Air Force. But the Air Force didn’t hand the records over to the FBI, and he managed to slip through the system. Similar problems occurred before the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre and the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.

The Fix NICS Act was drafted by Republicans and Democrats. Its main sponsors are Cornyn and Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. Both Connecticut senators are fierce advocates of gun control, as they represent the state where the Sandy Hook massacre took place.

Cornyn is a fierce advocate for gun rights. He even has an A-plus rating from the National Rifle Association. But last week, he took to the Senate floor and said Congress members needed to do more than simply offer thoughts and prayers to victims and family members, as they have done so many times.

“We need to not only think about and pray for the families and teachers and support staff affected by this terrible act, I think we need to conduct hearings and talk to the experts and find out what kind of tools might be available to us,” Cornyn said. “I personally am unwilling to face another family member who’s lost a loved one as a result of these mass shootings that could be prevented by making sure the background check system works as Congress intended.”

A version of the Fix NICS Act has already passed the House, but despite Cornyn’s high-ranking leadership position, it hasn’t seen any movement in the Senate. Senate Democrats have been frustrated by a lack of movement by Cornyn and other Republican leaders, and say GOP leadership in the House and Senate is the reason Congress has not been able to act to prevent another mass shooting like Parkland.

“It’s certainly been the Republican leadership that do not want their members having to vote on this, because I think they recognize if there’s a vote on it, it’s going to pass,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) told Vox in February.

Congress has been in this position before, a cycle of negotiations that often ends in inaction.

Despite there being energy on the outside, on Capitol Hill lawmakers seem otherwise occupied. The House is here for two days this week — a “knock-off session week,” one congressional Republican aide described — and the Senate, which is in session all week, has only scheduled debate on judicial nominations.