WASHINGTON — The deadly shooting spree in West Texas this weekend — the latest in an especially gruesome summer of massacres — has intensified pressure on congressional Republicans to take up gun safety legislation, giving fresh urgency to a debate that was already expected to be at the top of lawmakers’ agenda when they return to the Capitol.
The attack in Midland and Odessa, Texas, which left seven dead and 22 wounded, comes weeks after a 24-year-old gunman with an assault weapon killed nine people in Dayton, Ohio, in early August. That massacre, hours after one that killed 22 people at a Wal-Mart in El Paso, Texas, thrust gun violence into the Washington debate just as Congress left town for its annual August recess.
President Donald Trump expressed new openness to gun safety laws — including, he said then, “really common-sense sensible, important background checks” for gun buyers — and Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, promised a Senate debate. But in the weeks since, with lawmakers scattered across the country in their home districts, the issue seemed to drift from public view.
Now it has come roaring back, with Congress set to return on Sept. 9. At a briefing about Hurricane Dorian at Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters Sunday, Trump, who has a record of flip-flopping on gun safety, pledged to find a way to “substantially reduce” mass shootings. But he earlier appeared to dismiss background checks, telling reporters that “they would not have stopped any of it.”
In fact, whether a background check would have prevented the West Texas gunman from acquiring his weapon is not known. Chief Michael Gerke of the Odessa Police Department said the gunman, who had been fired from a trucking job, had used an AR-15-style rifle, but had a criminal record. It was not clear on Sunday whether the gun had been acquired legally, and authorities stressed that they had not established a motive.
In the wake of the El Paso and Dayto shootings, White House officials have been quietly engaged in bipartisan talks with senators who support expanding background checks and so-called red-flag laws. The laws make it easier for law enforcement to take guns from people deemed dangerous by a judge who issues a special type of order, called an “extreme risk protection order.”
An administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said Sunday that the talks had “made a lot of progress in good faith.” The White House was also exploring other ideas, the official said, including the death penalty for mass shooters and so-called lie-and-try laws to encourage the prosecution of those who lie on background check forms.
But the official said no agreement had been reached, and a Democrat who has been participating in those talks, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, said in an interview Sunday that the two sides still seemed far apart. Blumenthal said much would depend on whether the president, who has been consulting with the National Rifle Association, was willing to stand up to the powerful lobbying group.
“I think there is a sense that the American people just desperately want something to be done, and they have to respond to that imperative,” he said, “but are so far nowhere near crossing the Rubicon to stand up to the gun lobby and the NRA as far as I can tell.”
According to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks gun violence in America, there have been 283 mass shootings in 2019, defined as those in which four or more people were killed or injured, excluding the perpetrators. In August alone, 53 people died in mass shootings in the United States. Using the Justice Department’s definition of mass killings — in which at least three people die — there have been five mass killings involving firearms since the Dayton massacre last month. West Texas is the sixth.
Republicans have long been resistant to gun safety legislation, but the political landscape around the issue is changing. The NRA, mired in lawsuits and personnel battles, is at its weakest in decades. Outrage over mass shootings is growing and gun safety groups are ascendant, amid a wave of student activism that emerged from the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
The El Paso and Dayton shootings left even the most ardent Republican defenders of gun rights feeling rattled, and the party began coalescing around red-flag laws. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., along with Blumenthal, is sponsoring a bipartisan measure, and Sen. John Thune, the No. 3 Republican, has said he is “confident Congress will be able to find common ground” on the issue.
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On Sunday, Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., said the federal government should follow the model set by his home state, which passed a red-flag measure after the Parkland massacre.
“We’ve got to figure this out,” Scott said on the NBC program “Meet the Press.” “We’ve got to figure out how we get guns away from mentally ill people who want to harm others or themselves.”
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But for Democrats — many of whom also favor banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines — red-flag laws do not go nearly far enough. Blumenthal and others say such measures must be married with expanded background checks, at the very least, to produce meaningful gun safety improvements.
The House, under Democratic control, passed two ambitious bills in February that would require background checks for all gun buyers, including those on the internet or at gun shows, and extend waiting limits for would-be gun buyers flagged by the instant check system. But McConnell has refused to take them up; the weekend’s shootings in Texas prompted fresh demands for him to do so.
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“Enough is enough,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement Saturday night, adding, “The Republican Senate must end its obstruction and finally pass the common-sense, bipartisan, House-passed gun violence prevention legislation that the country is demanding.”
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At the same time, the House appears poised to pass another round of gun safety bills. The House Judiciary Committee is planning to meet next week to take up several gun-related measures, including a red-flag bill and a ban on high-capacity magazines like the one used by the gunman in Dayton, which carried 100 rounds. And the panel will convene a hearing on an assault weapons ban this month.
The AR-15-style weapon in the West Texas killing, banned from 1994 until 2004, has been used in most of the deadliest shootings this decade, including at a country music festival in Las Vegas; a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas; and a nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
The House-passed background checks measure, though, is unlikely to pass the Senate. Opponents object to its provision making virtually all gun sales and transfers, including those between family members, subject to background checks.
Instead, Senate supporters of background checks hope to revive a different measure — the so-called Manchin-Toomey legislation, named for its chief sponsors, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and Patrick Toomey, R-Pa. — which fell to a Senate filibuster in 2013.
But Manchin-Toomey, which includes exemptions for family and friends, may face its own obstacles in the Senate. Only four Republicans voted for it in 2013, and just two — Toomey and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine — are still serving. In an emailed statement Sunday, Collins said she had had “extensive conversations” with several Senate colleagues, as well as the White House, on a package of gun safety bills over the past few weeks, and was “optimistic that senators are working together in good faith.”
While Trump has insisted that McConnell is “totally on board” with expanding background checks, McConnell has not said that.
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In an interview with Louisville radio host Terry Meiners shortly after the Dayton and El Paso shootings, he stopped short of supporting a background check measure or committing to bring it to a vote, but said simply that the issue would be “front and center” in the Senate debate when lawmakers return.
Instead, McConnell instructed three senior committee chairmen, including Graham, who leads the Judiciary Committee, to engage in “bipartisan discussions” about how to address gun violence “without infringing on Americans’ constitutional rights.” And he resisted calls from Democrats to bring senators back to Washington to begin the debate.
“We’re going to begin these discussions over the August break,” he said then, “and when we get back, hopefully we’ll be in position to agree on things on a bipartisan basis and go forward and make a law.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.