The odds are heavily against this Republican-controlled Congress taking action on guns in the wake of Sunday night’s massacre in Las Vegas. But rank-and-file GOP lawmakers are giving Democrats at least a glimmer of hope they might cooperate on a narrowly tailored measure California Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced Wednesday.
Feinstein’s proposal would ban the sale of a device known as a “bump stock,” which authorities believe Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter, used to dramatically escalate the scale of the carnage there. Several Democrats are prepared to introduce versions of the Feinstein bill on the House side, as well, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said at a rally Wednesday morning. And while Republican leaders in Congress have brushed off Democrats’ calls for new laws, a surprising number of their GOP colleagues did not rule out supporting Feinstein’s bill in the wake of the tragedy.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R- S.C., for example, told McClatchy, “I’ll be glad to look at what she’s doing.” For Democrats, the challenge will be bridging the gap between that kind of non-committal response and a firm “yes” vote.
“I think this issue represents a very likely common ground,” Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut told reporters Wednesday, “if there is one.”
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That’s an important caveat. Despite similar gun control pushes after previous mass shootings – at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, the Pulse Night Club in Orlando – Republicans and some Democrats in Congress have resisted pressure to pass new restrictions. They have focused instead on mental health care and other ways to tackle the issue.
Congressional leaders took a similar stance this week. “I don’t know what (Paddock’s) mental state was but I do take solace in the fact that we’ve been working on addressing these mental health issues more comprehensively and I’m glad we passed the law we passed,” Speaker Paul Ryan said on the Dan O’Donnell Show, a conservative radio program, Wednesday morning.
Ryan, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a day earlier, emphasized that congressional Republicans remain focused on passing tax reform, not taking up new legislation on guns.
And he chided Democrats for trying to make a political issue out of the tragedy, which left 59 people dead (including Paddock) and more than 500 wounded. “I think the wrong thing to do is turn this into some political football, some policy debate before we know all the details.”
Democrats acknowledge Republicans don’t want to tackle gun control right now, but they are hoping Las Vegas will force the issue. “Mr. and Mrs. America, you have to stand up, you have to say enough is enough,” Feinstein pleaded Wednesday as she unveiled her legislation at the Capitol. “We know the power that’s on the other side, you have to stand up and help us.”
She and others believe that the sheer number of people killed and wounded could change Republicans’ political calculations, at least when it comes to her proposal. “The deaths and wounding of over 500 people, that’s what’s different about this,” Feinstein said Wednesday. “You’re not going to stop it if we keep advertising these (bump stocks) for sale.”
The “bump stock” gets its name for the motion it creates to rapidly “bump” the trigger of a gun, turning a semi-automatic rifle into an automatic weapon. That allows a gunman to fire between 400 and 800 rounds per minute. While automatic weapons have been outlawed in the United States since 1986, bump stocks are perfectly legal and, Feinstein noted Wednesday, can be purchased online for a few hundred dollars. She also pointed out that a dozen of the semi-automatic rifles found in the gunman’s room at the Mandalay Bay hotel and casino were outfitted with the device. “What we saw was an automatic weapon being used,” Feinstein said.
A number of Republicans said Wednesday they were concerned about the availability of bump stocks and the prospect others may now try to use them in similarly violent ways. “It appears very troubling that the (bump stock) can be purchased so easily and used to massively increase the firepower of a rifle,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Me., a key Senate swing vote. On the House side, Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., suggested Tuesday that Congress could look into the devices, tweeting that their legality could be an area for bipartisan cooperation.
Even Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Tex., agreed Congress should at least explore the issue. “I asked (Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles) Grassley specifically about the bump stock issue, and... he seemed open to the idea of having a hearing. I think that would be a good idea.”
Democrats seem to be calculating that targeting bump stocks, rather than broader measures to expand background checks or close other purchasing loopholes, is the way to put the most pressure on Republicans right now, given how the device is presumed to have driven up the death count in Las Vegas. Feinstein told reporters that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. called her Tuesday and encouraged her to introduce the legislation, which has been a part of a 2013 assault weapons ban she sponsored after the Sandy Hook massacre.
But Democrats also have to balance gun politics within their own party. Of the 23 Democratic senators up for reelection in 2018, 10 represent states that President Donald Trump won. And making gun control an issue going into an election year may not go over well in places like Montana and South Dakota, where Democrats face serious challenges. For her part, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-S.D., sounded like a lot of her Republican colleagues Wednesday when asked about Feinstein’s bill. “It’s definitely something that should be looked at,” Heitkamp said.
McClatchy Washington reporter Brian Murphy contributed to this report.