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Demonstrators hold up signs representing the victims of gun violence in front of the U.S. Capitol on June 20, 2019. [Tom Brenner/Getty Images]

Gun Policy

When Congress Returns, Will It Act on Guns? Here’s What to Watch For.

A guide to the policies and players that could prove key in the gun violence debate.

Following a string of recent mass shootings in El Paso, Dayton, and Odessa, activists are clamoring for solutions to address gun violence, and as national Democrats push for new laws, Republicans face renewed pressure to act.

While expectations for gun reform have risen in the past, only to be dashed by the gun lobby and its Capitol Hill allies, many members of Congress have suggested this time might be different. Earlier this year, the Democratic-led House passed measures to regulate all private gun sales and prevent buyers from getting guns without complete background checks. Now, many House Democrats are seeking to expand the playing field further with calls for additional gun reforms like a new assault weapons ban.

“Until this year, it was really rare that Congressional committees even took up gun legislation,” said Lindsay Nichols, a staff attorney with Giffords, the gun violence prevention group. “This really has been a change from years past.”

Meanwhile, some Republicans believe their failure to support reforms could have electoral consequences — one prominent party donor said last month it could mean their “extinction” with critical suburban voters.

As members of Congress return to Washington from their August recess, we look at some of the gun reform proposals likely to be under consideration and the key figures who will determine their fate.

The proposals

Expanding background checks 

In February, the House passed two bills to greatly expand the federal background check system. The first would require all gun transfers go through a background check. Under current federal law, only sales by licensed dealers are subject to check requirements, and private transactions — like the one reportedly used by the Odessa shooter to obtain his AR-15 — remain exempt. The second bill closes the so-called Charleston loophole in the background check system. That refers to a clause in the 1994 law creating the FBI’s National Instant Background Check System (NICS), which allows gun dealers to sell weapons to a buyer after three days of waiting for approval, even if the customer might potentially be prohibited from buying a gun. The loophole earned its nickname after the 2015 Charleston mass shooting, whose perpetrator had a documented record of drug abuse that should have resulted in a failed background check.

Public opinion polling suggests both bills have overwhelming support, even with Republicans and gun owners. The GOP-controlled Senate has so far refused to bring them to a vote. But on the heels of the El Paso and Dayton shootings, Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania once again pushed his party to consider a background check bill he previously sponsored with Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. That bill, introduced in the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook mass shooting, would have required private sales at gun shows or online to go through checks, a more modest expansion of the system than the House proposals because it would not cover all private sales. Toomey said last week that the chances for a renewed version of that bill, which failed in 2013 in the face of gun lobby opposition, “are looking better than they have ever looked at any time.”

Supporting red flag laws 

So-called red flag laws, also known as extreme risk protection orders or gun violence restraining orders, allow courts to temporarily seize legally owned guns from people who pose an imminent threat to themselves or others. The orders have strong bipartisan support in polls, and a slew of states passed GVROs after 2018, when even Florida Republicans helped Democrats pass such a law against the wishes of the National Rifle Association. Currently 17 states and the District of Columbia have red flag laws. A bipartisan Senate bill from Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut would fund state efforts to create their own versions. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said last month that he supported the policies, but wanted legislation paired with background check legislation.

“Lie and try” legislation

When someone who is banned from buying guns lies on a background check form in an attempt to buy a firearm, that falsehood is itself a federal crime. But people are rarely prosecuted for “lie and try” cases. In March, Toomey introduced a bipartisan bill with Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware that would bolster enforcement. Specifically, their bill would require federal authorities to notify state law enforcement within 24 hours of a prohibited individual attempting to purchase a firearm.

Gun violence research funding

Congress could also address gun violence through the budget process. Earlier this year, the House allocated $50 million for gun violence research, breaking a 1990s-era budget rider known as the Dickey Amendment that had effectively put a federal moratorium on funding gun-related research. But again, the upper chamber of Congress remains key. Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, a Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said last month that gun violence research was a “partisan priority” that would be too controversial for his panel to agree on. But negotiations between Democrats and Republicans on the issue are still likely to be fluid.

Key players

President Donald Trump

In the wake of the past month’s mass shootings, the president has sent wildly conflicting signals about his views on gun reforms. Following the traumatic 24-hour period marked by the El Paso and Dayton shootings, Trump said he favored expanding background checks and red flag laws, though he offered few details. He later reportedly walked back his comments about background checks after speaking with NRA leader Wayne LaPierre. For Trump, a similar pattern had played out after previous mass shootings in Las Vegas and Parkland.

On Wednesday, Trump reiterated to reporters at the White House that he wanted to see new gun reforms. “I would like to see it happen soon,” he said. “We’re going to do what’s right,” he added, before saying the NRA supported him and also “wants to do what’s right.”

Separately, the White House is reportedly set to put forth its own package of gun violence recommendations, but has thus far been scant on specifics. On Monday, the chief of staff for Vice President Mike Pence previewed one concrete proposal he said was drafted by the Justice Department, which would expedite executions of mass killers.

Senator Mitch McConnell

The Majority Leader, who is also a longtime critic of gun reform, has the final say on what, if any, gun legislation will make it to the Senate floor for a vote. In August, he resisted Democratic calls to convene an emergency legislative session focused on gun violence, but promised that the chamber would address gun reforms when it returned from recess. That has inspired hope among some advocates of stricter gun laws, but on September 3, McConnell said in an interview that he would only bring up for a vote legislation that he knew the president would sign. McConnell added that he expected to hear from the White House sometime next week what legislative reforms it was prepared to support.

The gun lobby

The NRA was outspent by pro-gun reform groups in the 2018 midterms, and a series of recent reports by The Trace and other news outlets has documented widespread self-dealing and financial mismanagement that prompted several external probes. This summer also saw the high-profile dissolution of the NRA’s business partnership with its longtime PR firm, Ackerman McQueen, and the departure of its influential chief lobbyist, Chris Cox. But the organization remains the pre-eminent gun rights power broker on Capitol Hill and retains the ear of the White House, as evidenced by the apparent success of LaPierre’s call to Trump in August to step back from publicly supporting strengthened background checks.

The organization remains steadfastly opposed to most gun reforms, including universal background checks. And while the NRA has previously expressed theoretical support for red flag laws, it has opposed every version enacted by individual states, ostensibly because of concerns over due process. Last month, an NRA spokesperson said in a statement that any orders “at a minimum must include strong due process protections, require treatment, and include penalties against those who make frivolous claims.” In mid-August, the NRA urged members to contact members of Congress and voice opposition to universal background checks as well as any potential assault weapon ban.

But the NRA is not the only gun lobby group with influence on the Hill. The National Shooting Sports Foundation on Thursday announced that it was spending $250,000, its largest ad buy in several years, imploring lawmakers to include the gun industry in any policy negotiations.

Vulnerable Republican senators

The GOP’s control of the Senate is up for grabs in 2020. Many vulnerable incumbents or open seats formerly held by Republicans are in states that are less reliably conservative than in past years, or have become toss-ups. The party faces tough races in states including Georgia, Arizona, Colorado, and Maine. Public opinion polling suggests overwhelming support for policies like universal background checks, and Republicans wary of incurring voters’ wrath at general election time may push for stronger policies rather than running defense for the gun rights movement.

The gun reform outlook

Nichols, the Giffords lawyer, said she believes the prospects for Congress passing gun reforms is better than at any point in the recent past. She said her group’s priority will be pressuring the Senate to take up the background check bills passed by the House in February. But she has moderate expectations. “Anything is possible, but Republicans have not been willing to discuss serious background check legislation,” she said. “And there’s still a lot of discussion and consensus-building that needs to happen around extreme risk protection orders.”

Whit Ayres, a longtime Republican political consultant and public relations specialist who advises several GOP Senators, said that “when it comes to gun issues, assuming that nothing will happen is always the safest course.” But he added “intensity always matters in politics,” which in this moment could favor new gun laws. “The reason there appears to be more openness to an option like universal background checks is the proliferation of mass shootings and the realization that we have a serious national problem,” he said.

Ayres added that failure to act could have a negative effect at the polls in 2020. “Having our national legislature paralyzed in the face of repeated mass slaughter undermines faith in government and trust in our political institutions.”