Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California is touting support by the White House and Justice Department for her proposal to forbid people on a federal terror watch list from buying guns, but her measure still appears doomed in the Senate unless a compromise is reached by next week.
The Senate is poised to vote as early as Monday on Feinstein’s Democratic proposal and a competing measure by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. At this point there’s no sign either can get the 60 votes needed, however.
Pressure is increasing on Congress to act in the wake of Sunday’s attack in Orlando, Florida, in which Omar Mateen, who was once on an FBI watch list, killed 49 people in a gay nightclub and wounded dozens. But unless a deal is struck the result will be the same as after the San Bernardino, California, terror attack in December: Both Feinstein’s and Cornyn’s measures were defeated.
Feinstein said Thursday that talks with Cornyn had broken down but that she was open to negotiations. She characterized her proposal as a continuation of gun control efforts she’d begun after becoming mayor of San Francisco in 1978 following the slayings of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.
“The time has come to do something about it,” Feinstein said. “This should be the easiest piece . . . because this deals with the potential terrorist, the potential person that’s going to go in and create a massive act of violence.”
Feinstein’s proposal would allow the Justice Department to block gun sales to individuals on the federal terrorist watch list if authorities had a “reasonable belief that the weapon would be used in connection with terrorism.”
Feinstein suggested the National Rifle Association was behind the failure of her attempt to strike a deal with Cornyn, saying talks had broken down “after I got word that he had sent it to the NRA.”
Omar Mateen had been removed from a watch list before he purchased a Sig Sauer MCX assault rifle and a pistol about a week before the attack. Feinstein’s bill would alert authorities when anyone who’d been on a watch list in the past five years tried to buy a weapon, but would not automatically bar the sale.
Cornyn said the negotiations had failed because Feinstein “thought due process of law and the Constitution were not necessary.”
Cornyn said his proposal kept the presumption of innocence. His measure would let the government delay a gun sale to a suspected terrorist for 72 hours. Prosecutors would need to go to court and convince a judge there was probable cause in order to permanently block the sale.
“The role of the courts is to be an independent third party and evaluate those so the government doesn’t abuse its authority,” he said.
Democrats argue that 72 hours is too short and does not give the Justice Department enough time to block the sale. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., asserted that it is “intended to never deny a gun, or almost never, even to a terrorist.”
What impact the measure would have had on the attack in Orlando is unclear. Mateen had been removed from the watch list before he purchased a Sig Sauer MCX assault rifle and a pistol about a week before he attacked. Feinstein’s bill would alert authorities if anyone who’d been on a watch list in the past five years tried to buy a weapon, but it would not automatically bar the purchase.
The Cornyn and Feinstein measures are scheduled for votes Monday as amendments to legislation to fund the Commerce, State and Justice departments. The Senate will also consider proposals to expand background checks.
The White House on Thursday backed Feinstein’s measure, saying it would make a “substantive difference.” The Justice Department added its support.
We don’t take away a citizen’s rights without due process.
House Speaker Paul Ryan
“The amendment gives the Justice Department an important additional tool to prevent the sale of guns to suspected terrorists by licensed firearms dealers while ensuring protection of the department’s operational and investigative sensitivities,” Press Secretary Dana Iverson said in a statement.
Even if Feinstein’s proposal could pass the Senate, though, it might be dead on arrival in the House of Representatives. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., expressed skepticism about gun control measures Thursday, saying, “We don’t take away a citizen’s rights without due process.”
Tina Meins, whose father, Damian, was killed in the San Bernardino terror attack, came to the Capitol on Thursday to urge the passage of Feinstein’s legislation.
“How can we ignore the fact that in this country we make it easy and legal for dangerous people, including suspected terrorists, to commit unspeakable acts by providing them with easy access to guns?” she said. “It’s time to disarm hate.”
David Lightman contributed to this report.