The House of Representatives will recess this week without voting on any legislation barring terror suspects from buying guns. That’s because, for a group of House Republicans, the most conservative alternative offered was not conservative enough.
The 40-member group of libertarian-leaning House conservatives, known as the Freedom Caucus, vowed to vote against anti-terrorism legislation introduced by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California. The bill included a proposal to allow the Justice Department to block guns sales if it can show probable cause within 72 hours that the buyer is a terrorist threat.
Senator John Cornyn proposed similar legislation last month. The push is a response to a mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub that left 49 dead and 53 wounded. The shooter, Omar Mateen, called police during the attack and declared his allegiance to ISIS.
Democrats condemned Cornyn’s bill, and the legislation proposed by House lawmakers, as unworkable, saying that imposing such a burden on law enforcement officials would make the law useless. The legislation would have required federal officials to present evidence that a buyer has engaged in terrorism, or plans to do so. If they couldn’t, the sale would go through.
The National Rifle Association helped draft the Republican measures, saying they adequately addressed due process concerns that rival Democratic legislation — which would have imposed a less steep burden on the federal government — did not.
The House Freedom Caucus was not convinced. Most members are Tea Party Republicans, who often strive to position themselves to the right of their party’s conservative establishment.
In a statement, the group announced that it objected to the package “for failing to do enough to address the threat of radical Islamic terrorism and because of the inclusion of gun control provisions that fail to adequately protect due process.”
“We’re at war,” Representative Dave Brat, a Virginia Republican famous for besting then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a 2014 primary, told The Trace. “There are no bills up here that have to do with war. And now we are talking about guns. The tragedies over the last two decades are terrible. No one is downplaying that. But it’s very hard to regulate human nature.”
With House Democrats vowing to vote against the package for being too weak, and members of his own caucus in revolt, House Speaker Paul Ryan delayed a vote on the proposal until September, when lawmakers return from their summer recess.
Representative Lee Zeldin is a Long Island Republican who previously offered a version of Cornyn’s plan and supports McCarthy’s bill. Zeldin said he talked to Freedom Caucus members and emerged with “12 different ideas” about how they wanted to change the bill.
After the legislation was introduced, several members of the caucus suggested including “reciprocity” language that would allow any person with a valid concealed carry permit to carry their gun in any state that does not bar concealed firearms.
In interviews with The Trace on Monday and Tuesday, Freedom Caucus members did not say what kind of changes to the legislation might win their support, but cited many objections, including worries that imposing a new standard on gun buyers would violate their civil liberties.
Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the chairman of the Freedom Caucus, said members had “process concerns,” “policy concerns,” and “fundamental liberty concerns.”
“What’s the standard of proof on the gun provision?” Jordan said. “Is it beyond a reasonable doubt? No, it’s a probable cause standard, which is a much lower standard. So there were liberty concerns.”
Other members cited worries about due process, but struggled to specify them.
“I don’t know that there is any gun legislation that I can support because it either has due process infirmities or Second Amendment infirmities,” said Representative Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming.
Asked what the infirmities were, Lummis pleaded jet lag. “I can’t remember,” she said. “I truly just got off a plane so [the jet lag] is kind of hitting me.”
Representative Raul Labrador, an Idaho Republican, told The Trace his concerns with the package were so extensive that he couldn’t discuss them in a short interview.
In a version of a complaint many Democrats offered, Brat, the Virginia Republican, said that the bill didn’t make sense to him. If the Justice Department can show probable cause to block a gun sale, it should be able to marshal enough evidence to arrest the would-be buyer on terrorism charges, he said.
“A fifth grader would know you put that person in jail or out of the country,” Brat said.
Brat had yet another concern with the proposed bill: He objects to leaving enforcement of the terror list provision up to the Attorney General, currently Loretta Lynch, who recently faced criticism over meeting with former president Bill Clinton.
Lynch “has credibility issues,” he said. “So it’s just, you gotta be kidding me.”
[Photo: AP, P. Kevin Morley/Richmond Times-Dispatch]