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The gun control debate in Congress is no longer about guns

Congressional Republicans are looking for the narrowest possible action on gun violence prevention.

Speaker Paul Ryan And House Leadership Address The Press After Their Weekly Caucus Meeting Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Donald Trump said he wanted Congress to pass “comprehensive” gun control. Congress isn’t so keen.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting in a Parkland, Florida, high school that killed 17 people and injured more than a dozen others, pressure mounted for Congress to actually do something on guns — and Trump seemed enthusiastic about the idea.

But after a confusing meeting in the White House in which Trump sided with Democrats and censured Republicans for being “scared of the NRA,” a fast-paced news cycle, and a concerted effort by conservatives and pro-gun organizations to reorient the conversation away from guns, the GOP is now coalescing around the narrowest possible violence prevention proposals — many of which don’t even address guns at all.

“As I see it, any movement will be focused on school security — not gun control per se,” one GOP congressional aide said.

In the House, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy announced a vote on the STOP School Violence Act, a bill that doesn’t address guns but provides an annual $50 million grant to schools for training programs and revamped reporting systems. Meanwhile, in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he won’t hold a vote on guns this week and Majority Whip John Cornyn said lawmakers shouldn’t raise their expectations about what can pass the Senate and instead focus on the realistic. And the White House, which was expected to release its gun control proposal, has instead been focused on trade policy — specifically steel and aluminum tariffs.

“For an optimistic, I’m a cynic on this issue — Republicans have already succeeded by making it yesterday’s news,” Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT) said. “I live near Sandy Hook, so I speak with authority to say that nothing is going to happen that makes this year different.”

Trump has given Republicans reason to stall the gun debate

In a nationally televised bipartisan meeting on gun control last week, Trump had Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) cheering and Cornyn looking like he’d seen a ghost.

The madcap meeting with Trump on guns, which was meant to add clarity and more urgency to the debate, instead saw the president undermining the importance of “due process,” calling for “comprehensive” gun control, and even humoring the idea of an assault weapons ban — all somewhat unexpected positions for a GOP president to hold.

Republicans’ confusion on Trump’s position effectively stalled negotiations on Capitol Hill.

Any movement on background check reforms “all got set back because of all the events last week,” the GOP aide said. “There could’ve been some background check measures, but the way this has been handled on multiple fronts significantly damaged any momentum.”

The White House seems to have moved on as well. Trump is meeting with video game executives this week to discuss violence in gaming and has delayed rolling out a proposal on gun reforms. Then this week, Trump, to the shock and dismay of many Republicans, announced a proposal to raise tariffs on steel and aluminum, a development in the White House’s trade agenda that has occupied lawmakers’ attention all week.

“I think they are using these tariffs, which is an issue far more important to them personally, and hoping [gun control] will disappear,” another congressional aide in a moderate Democratic office said. “They are grateful this is a president that makes a lot of news.”

So far, the House is only moving on a school safety bill that, while bipartisan, is far narrower than the scope of gun violence prevention legislation Trump was discussing only last week.

Instead, the bill reflects what the National Rifle Association is most comfortable with: a gun reform bill that doesn’t actually touch guns or impact how Americans buy them.

Meanwhile, Democrats are trying to force a vote

Some Republicans are still talking guns. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), at whom many of Parkland survivors’ demands to do something were directed, has taken the lead in proposing bipartisan gun control legislation. He presented a plan that would strengthen background check laws, requiring gun sellers to notify local law enforcement if somebody lies about their history and fails a background check to buy a gun — a felony under current law.

In the House, Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA) has a filed a discharge petition for his bipartisan proposal with Rep. Peter King (R-NY) — a congressional maneuver that could force the speaker of the House to bring up a vote on a bill that gives states resources to expand background checks system and closes a number of gun sale loopholes for guns sold online or at gun shows. Currently, only federally licensed gun sellers are required to perform a background check.

Even if Democrats are united on the discharge petition, they still need roughly two dozen Republicans to back it before reaching the 218 threshold to force a vote. The petition has gained some bipartisan support but not yet enough to force Ryan to hold a vote. As far as Democrats are concerned, Republican leadership seems fixated on finding a narrower approach.

“I think the leadership’s goal is to find that spot where they can say we did something while having actually done as little as possible,” a Democratic congressional staffer said of Republicans’ strategy.

The Thompson-King bill goes further than the Fix NICS Act, which would only reinforce existing laws requiring state and federal agencies to report to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The House has already passed a version of the Fix NICS Act, which also expanded concealed carry permits to be allowed across state lines. Trump told Republicans to keep concealed carry provisions out of any gun control package this time.

Activists are organizing nationwide protests

But as eager as Republicans might be to move on from gun control, it will likely be a difficult issue to avoid in coming months, as gun violence prevention activists expand nationwide protests.

There are more than 400 marches planned across all 50 states in support of the March for Our Lives movement on March 24, after high school students sparked a national rally in Washington, DC.

An outpouring of student activism made the shooting in Parkland feel different to many lawmakers. Democrats, too, are hoping a change in perception on gun control will pressure Congress to act. According to several polls after the Parkland shooting, roughly two in three Americans now say gun laws should be made stricter.

“It’s too early to read the tea leaves in DC, but we know the public wants action,” John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group, said. “They know, too, who stands in the way — the NRA and the politicians they bankroll in Congress. If leaders don’t meet this moment on gun safety, then voters will throw them out in November.”

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