Gun control advocates want to know: Will Congress act this time?
After the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, members of Congress performed a familiar ritual: They tweeted, spoke, and emailed condolences to the victims and their families.
Usually, that’s where things end. There have been 1,607 mass shootings since the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, when 20 elementary school children and six teachers were murdered by a gunman in Newtown, Connecticut. More than 100 gun control bills have since been introduced on Capitol Hill. All have failed.
But there are signs that this time could be different, as the high school survivors of the Parkland shooting are keeping up the pressure on Congress and planning mass protests around the country to end gun violence. Some Republicans who normally support gun ownership rights, like Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), took an unusual step after the Parkland shooting: They said it might be time for Congress to pass a gun control bill.
There are two bills already in Congress that could get a vote, and more are in the works. On Wednesday, as high school students from DC, Maryland, and Virginia protested in front of the US Capitol and the White House, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) announced he and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) were working on a bill that would raise the minimum age to buy an AR-15 rifle to 21 for buyers who aren’t in the military (an initiative opposed by the National Rifle Association). President Donald Trump also voiced support for that idea on Thursday, tweeting, “Congress is in a mood to finally do something on this issue - I hope!”
A kid too young buy a handgun should be too young to buy an #AR15. Working with @SenFeinstein on a bipartisan bill that will raise the minimum purchase age for non-military buyers from 18 to 21 - the same age you currently have to be to purchase a handgun.— Jeff Flake (@JeffFlake) February 21, 2018
Of the other two bills Congress is currently considering, one is a proposed ban on “bump stocks,” which has gone nowhere in the Senate since it was introduced in October. Bump stocks are devices that essentially turn semiautomatic weapons into fully automatic ones, allowing a shooter to fire off multiple rounds rapidly until they release the trigger, which makes mass shootings deadlier.
The other bill, which is the more likely of the two to succeed, is the bipartisan Fix NICS Act. Many agencies consistently fail to report criminal records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, and this bill would increase enforcement of the rule and give states financial incentives to report.
On Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced that President Donald 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.
Congress is out this week, so there won’t be immediate action. And in the past, lawmakers have been extremely slow to take up any type of gun control legislation, even when there’s bipartisan consensus on things like background checks. More often than not, momentum stalls and the bill up for debate languishes.
The chorus of voices has grown this time, with young people and high school survivors of the shooting beseeching lawmakers to take action and threatening to vote them out of office if they don’t.
The bill with the best chance of becoming law doesn’t make new gun laws — it enforces existing ones
The Fix NICS Act aims to fix a disturbing trend in multiple mass shootings: Existing gun laws in America are poorly enforced.
Case in point: the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (also known as NICS). 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 they are eligible to buy a gun and don’t have a serious criminal conviction on their record.
Problems happen when agencies don’t submit the records, which has happened 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, Devin Kelley (an Air Force veteran), from buying a gun.
Under federal law, Kelley 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 Kelley 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 guns. 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. Cornyn and other Republican leaders have frustrated Senate Democrats, who say GOP leadership in the House and Senate are the very 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 last week.
Congressional Republicans are reluctant to close a loophole around automatic weapons
In addition to tightening the background check system, Cornyn has been open to a bill introduced by Sen. Feinstein that would ban bump stocks. Bump stocks are devices that harness a gun’s kickback energy, making semiautomatic gun (which fires one bullet with each trigger-pull) mimic a fully automatic one (which can fire off multiple rounds until the shooter takes their finger off the trigger).
After 58 people were killed at a country music festival in Las Vegas last year by a gunman who used bump stocks, GOP senators said they would be open to Feinstein’s legislation. While that bill had a hearing in the Senate, it has also stalled. Rather than take up the issue and pass legislation, Senate Republicans have said they want the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives to make a regulatory change that would ban bump stocks.
That’s the same position as the NRA, which said ATF should review whether bump stocks should be legal or subject to additional federal regulations. Republicans including House Speaker Paul Ryan and many in the Senate have said a regulatory fix on bump stocks would be faster than passing the bill, but the rulemaking process to examine the regulation will take a year, with no guarantee that the ATF will actually do anything.
With Congress failing to pass more than 100 gun control bills as the number of casualties from mass shootings piles up, it’s easy for gun control advocates to think nothing will be accomplished. But the Parkland shooting is inspiring more direct protests and political action than many of the mass shootings before it.
“I hope that the families that have been impacted by this, particularly those who see themselves as Republicans, see themselves as conservative in terms of their viewpoints,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) told Vox last week. “We really need conservatives to speak out about the commonsense idea that you do not have to interfere with gun ownership merely by doing gun safety.”
On Monday, a number of high school students protested outside the White House, lying down on the ground to symbolize the Parkland students killed by bullets last week. National activist groups and students are planning two major protest actions next month: the National School Walkout on March 14 and the March for Our Lives on March 24.
“Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have ever been done to prevent this, we call BS,” said Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma Gonzales in a speech that went viral this weekend. “They say that tougher gun laws do not decrease gun violence. We call BS. … They say that no laws could have been able to prevent the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred. We call BS.”
Correction: A previous version of this article described semiautomatic weapons as needing to be reloaded before each shot. They do not; they fire one round with each trigger pull.