The NRA may now be behind an effort to regulate a device that helped turn Sunday’s country music festival in Las Vegas into a war zone, but the broader gun control debate in Washington remains largely unchanged.
Though its leaders are rarely seen or heard from on the Hill, the NRA looms large there, with lawmakers in both parties seeking to stay in the good graces of the powerful gun lobby and its active and vocal membership across 50 states. But the group’s utter silence in the aftermath of the Las Vegas massacre allowed the group to get outmaneuvered by many congressional Republicans who remain astounded that one man was able to kill 58 people and injure more than 500 in under ten minutes.
Bump stocks use a firearm’s own power to repeatedly bump against a shooter’s trigger finger, making a semiautomatic weapon act like a fully automatic weapon of war. Many Democrats are lauding the NRA announcement Thursday that it supports more regulations on bump stocks – though it stops short of the full ban on the devices many Republicans are calling for or the outright confiscation of them that some progressives are clamoring for.
It’s rare for Republicans to be on the other side of the debate with the NRA, but on this one small sliver of the gun control debate, there’s a visible division between the most powerful gun lobby in America and a growing number of its Republicans in Congress.
“There’s a strong, growing bipartisan consensus that we need to address this very soon,” Florida Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo tells Rolling Stone.
Curbelo’s proposal to outright ban the devices brought together strange bedfellows and became the talk of Washington this week – a dynamic that’s on display as Curbelo walks across the marble floors of the Capitol Thursday.
“What’s a bump stock do?” Republican Rep. Dave Brat of Virginia, a member of the far-right Freedom Caucus, yells out to his moderate colleague. “What is it?”
“It converts a semi-automatic into an automatic,” Curbelo says.
Asked if he’d support such a bill, Brat says, “I think so. … If it makes it automatic, and automatics are illegal right now, then there’s a rational debate to be had.”
But, as is always the case on gun issues, other Republicans dismiss the calls for a new regulation on any sort of weaponry.
“I’m a Second Amendment man. I’m not for any gun control. None,” Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby told CNN this week.
Attitudes like this from senior members of the GOP have left some Democrats skeptical that the GOP will be able deliver on bump stocks.
“I will believe it all when I see it,” Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii tells Rolling Stone. “A few members saying a few things before recess, in the wake of the worst mass shooting in [modern] American history, is I suppose better than nothing, but it’s not enacting a law. They have to work with us and enact the law.”
The gun lobby and many lawmakers are also urging the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to handle new bump stock regulations internally.
“I’m not certain, but I think they can do it on their own, which is the quickest, most efficient way of getting it done,” Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Ryan Costello tells Rolling Stone. “If this is something that you care about, and I do, and you wanted to snap your fingers and have this be resolved, the best way is to get ATF to do it.”
That would spare the NRA and its GOP allies a highly visible, national debate about guns – a debate many Democrats are itching for, but one that seems like a non-starter with the GOP in control in Washington.
As is so often the case after high-profile mass shootings, members of both parties have largely clung to predictable talking points in the media this week.
Like President Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell brushed aside calls for new gun control measures, saying they were premature in the immediate aftermath of the latest mass slaughter. And House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters that, if anything, mental health reform should be the focus of legislative efforts.
That’s not good enough for many Democrats, like Rep. Mike Thompson of California, who want to make expanded background checks the center of the debate.
“The Republicans need to have hearings and have a vote on our common-sense gun-violence-prevention legislation, and that is our bill to expand background checks to make sure that we do everything we can to prevent criminals and the dangerously mentally ill from getting their hands on guns,” Thompson told reporters at the Capitol.
But with next year’s midterm elections around the corner and Democrats still reeling from their shocking losses in 2016, the party isn’t planning to make the issue a central focus in Washington like it did last year, when Congress members held sit-ins on the House floor and Senate Democrats engaged in a 15-hour filibuster on guns.
“Our agenda for the 2018 midterms is a Better Deal agenda – talking about better jobs, better wages and a better future for American families,” Rep. Linda Sanchez, the vice chairwoman of House Democrats, said at a press conference. “That’ll be the framework that we will discuss all other issue under, but first and foremost it’s economic agenda that speaks to the real needs of the American working families. And while for some members gun violence will be the platform, on what they’ll talk a lot about, we want to emphasize the fact that Democrats have and always will continue to stand with working families, and that’s the framework on which we will discuss the 2018 midterms.”
The NRA has been aggressively pushing gun rights proposals throughout this Congress, including an effort to remove restrictions on owning silencers, declassifying armor-piercing bullets and allowing people to travel across state lines with their weapons if they have a concealed carry permit in their home state.
That this is an NRA-friendly Congress is evidenced by Majority House Whip Steve Scalise, who said this week that being shot at a congressional baseball practice – which doctors say left him minutes from death – only “fortified” his pro-gun position.
Democrats largely have given up on trying to force the issue onto the legislative calendar and are instead turning their attention to the White House. Some are urging President Trump to get behind the so-called Toomey-Manchin bill that would require near universal background checks on gun purchases, which failed when it was brought up in the last Congress.
“I believe this rests in the hands of the president,” Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin tells Rolling Stone. “Ours is as reasonable a response as it has ever been.”
A number of times this week, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer reminded the president – and the nation – that Trump used to side with the Democrats on this issue.
“Before he ran for office, after Sandy Hook, he said he supported President Obama’s proposals on gun control, on gun safety,” Schumer tells Rolling Stone. “And I challenge the president: This is an area where you can really do some good. You say you’re a leader? Well then don’t follow the NRA. Don’t let their extreme positions dictate what you do. This is a way to show leadership.
“Getting rid of bump stocks makes sense, [but] I think anyone who thinks that solves the problem is crazy,” Schumer says. “We have to go much further and do rational gun control. The thing that has the best chance of passing, that would do the most good, is universal background checks. Sooner or later we’ll get it. We’re going to keep fighting for it.”