WASHINGTON – On May 24, the House Appropriations Committee took up a proposal “to deny transfers of firearms to persons known or suspected to be engaged in conduct related to terrorism.” In a party-line vote, Republicans defeated the plan 29 to 17.
Nineteen days later, a man whom the FBI had investigated as a possible terrorist went into an Orlando nightclub and, claiming solidarity with the Islamic State, shot 49 people to death with weapons he bought legally.
The legislation couldn’t have prevented the massacre; it wouldn’t have taken effect for months. But it highlights an absurd situation: Lawmakers have known for a long time that those suspected of terrorist activities can legally buy guns, but the Republican majority, putting Second Amendment absolutism above modest national-security considerations, is refusing to fix the problem.
At least twice before, the same House committee had votes on the same proposal, and both times it was also defeated – in 2015, by a vote of 32 to 19, and 2013, 29 to 19. The Senate, for its part, voted down similar legislation in December, following the San Bernardino, California, killings.
And Monday night, a week after the Orlando killings, this tragedy repeated itself as farce. Republicans defeated Democratic legislation to keep those on terrorism watch lists from getting guns. Democrats defeated a fig-leaf measure proposed by Republicans that would have made it virtually impossible to block those on the watch lists from getting guns. For kicks, lawmakers also voted down dueling Republican and Democratic proposals on gun-purchase background checks.
Now the issue goes to the campaign trail, where presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump said that the solution to the Orlando slayings was to have more clubgoers carrying concealed guns so they could have shot “this son of a bitch.” After even the National Rifle Association said it didn’t approve of people carrying guns where alcohol is served, Trump walked back his remarks.
The immediate gridlock was an indication of how proficient Washington has become at doing nothing. After the 2012 slaughter of children in Newtown, Connecticut, it took the Senate four months to defeat the resulting gun-control bills. This time, it took just nine days to kill reforms.
Democrats are not without blame in the post-Orlando failure on Capitol Hill. In their rush to revive the push to expand background checks for online and gun-show sales, they made the background-check legislation, championed by Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, more extensive than a bipartisan proposal taken up in 2013.
But on the question of closing the “terror gap” in gun laws, it really isn’t a close call. The “no fly, no buy” proposal from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was a modest idea: If you’re not allowed to board a plane because of suspected terrorist ties, you also can’t buy a gun. The total number of Americans and legal residents who would be blocked from gun sales under the provision: about 5,000 – in a nation of more than 320 million.
But Republicans responded as if President Barack Obama himself were going door-to-door, confiscating every American’s guns. The no-fly-no-buy legislation “violates the Second amendment, because a fundamental constitutional right cannot be infringed upon without due process of law,” proclaimed Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.
The due-process argument is a legitimate one, but Republicans, instead of making an attempt to toughen civil-liberties protections, went to the other extreme. The alternative bill by Sen. John Cornyn of Texas would have given the government three days to prove a case against somebody on the watch list, or that person would be allowed a gun. Cornyn admitted he was essentially requiring the government to win a conviction in 72 hours: “If they are too dangerous to buy a firearm, they are too dangerous to be loose on our streets,” he said.
No doubt, a compromise could have been reached, if that were the purpose. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, ever pragmatic, was drafting middle-ground legislation that would block about half as many suspected terrorists as Feinstein’s proposal.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., facing a difficult re-election in November, pleaded with senators to “stop playing political football with something so important” and get behind a “good-faith, workable solution” such as the Collins plan.
But such calls are likely to amount to just another way to bury the issue for the rest of the year. With just a few weeks left on the legislative calendar, it will be difficult for the no-fly-no-buy issue to return this year. Monday night was the best chance yet to block would-be terrorists from getting guns, and, as before, the Republican majority chose not to act.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.