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Gun reform is congressional Democrats’ top priority this fall

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he’s still waiting to hear what Trump will sign.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Charles Schumer having a quiet word.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate minority leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) in the Capitol after a bill-signing ceremony for the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019 on August 1, 2019.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Democrats in Congress are determined to push through gun reforms as lawmakers return from recess this week, but they face an uphill battle when it comes to garnering Republican support.

While both House and Senate Democrats have ramped up their calls for gun control in the wake of mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, El Paso, Texas, and Odessa, Texas, Republicans haven’t exactly approached the issue with the same urgency. When pressed, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to come back in August to consider gun-related bills, and when asked whether he’d actually take up gun control legislation once Congress was in session, he effectively said he’d have to wait to get the go-ahead from President Donald Trump.

Democrats’ main goal — passing a bill on universal background checks through the Senate — is one that the president seemed open to in the days after the El Paso and Dayton shootings, but that support waned shortly after. As Minority Leader Chuck Schumer noted in a letter to the conference, Democrats intend to keep the pressure on McConnell, who has resolutely blocked a number of House bills this past year, including legislation targeting election security, corruption, and the minimum wage.

“Despite the severity of the gun violence epidemic in the United States, bipartisan, House-passed background check legislation still languishes in Leader McConnell’s legislative graveyard,” Schumer writes in his letter.

Democrats are hoping that public pressure — and negative polling for Trump — might just be enough to spur the president to finally take some action.

Democrats are pushing for universal background checks

Democrats have a lot of bills they’d like to get passed to address gun violence, but increasingly the one they’re pushing the most is legislation that would guarantee universal background checks for all gun sales.

As Vox’s German Lopez previously reported, there is a massive loophole in existing gun laws, which means that private gun sellers do not have to do background checks:

Under current federal law, licensed dealers are required to run a background check to make sure a buyer doesn’t have a criminal record, history of mental illness, or any other factor that legally bars him from purchasing a gun.

But the law has a big loophole: Private sellers — meaning unlicensed sellers — don’t have to run a background check. So someone who doesn’t run a licensed gun shop can sell or gift a firearm at a gun show, over the internet, or to friends and family without verifying through a background check that the buyer isn’t legally prohibited from purchasing the weapon.

The new bill, HR 8, would close this loophole, although it would leave some exemptions for gun transfers among family and temporary transfers (like lending a gun) while hunting.

The House passed the Bipartisan Background Checks Act in February, though the Senate has yet to take it up. While Democrats are also pushing other policy changes, including a ban on assault weapons, this legislation seems like the most viable option for Congress to address this fall. Republicans have signaled some openness, though it’s really ultimately up to the president and McConnell.

Trump — and Mitch McConnell — are the biggest roadblocks

Following the mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso, Trump indicated that he was open to advancing some kind of gun control legislation. The problem, as he has revealed over and over again, is that he’s an incredibly unreliable partner on most issues.

In this case, Trump’s initial support appeared to soften significantly following pressure from the National Rifle Association and other aides. Now, lawmakers are literally waiting to see if he’ll give Senate Republicans the green light to pursue some policy changes.

“I said several weeks ago that if the president took a position on a bill so that we knew we would actually be making a law and not just having serial votes, I’d be happy to put it on the floor,” McConnell said on the Hugh Hewitt show last week. “And the administration is in the process of studying what they are prepared to support, if anything.”

McConnell indicated that Trump would likely offer a more definitive take of the legislation he would sign once Congress was back in town this week.

Polling suggests that the majority of Americans want gun reform — though Trump’s base is less interested

One of the factors that could push the White House into taking some action on gun reform is the overwhelming pressure from voters who’d like to see something happen.

Not only is there massive support for lawmakers to “do something” about gun violence, there’s also strong backing for universal background checks specifically. A July NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that 89 percent of voters across both parties are in favor of them, including 84 percent of Republicans.

Internal polling conducted by the White House, however, suggests the issue may be less popular among Trump’s base, the New York Times reports. Those familiar with conversations at the White House told the Times it’s possible the White House will pursue reforms that are slightly less ambitious, including a narrower background check bill and “red flag” laws that enable law enforcement to bar individuals from accessing firearms if they are flagged as a danger to themselves or others.

With attention still squarely focused on this issue as lawmakers undertake their fall agenda, there is expected to be significant back and forth on the subject. Whether there’s any actual action, however, is an open question.