One month after the Parkland shooting, as schoolchildren take to the streets in an unprecedented call for changes to US gun laws, Senate Republicans are working to pass a modest background check bill and avoid a full-blown gun control debate.
Despite calls for significant gun reform from President Trump just two weeks ago, Republicans appear to have whittled down their ambitions to one bill to improve the background check registry.
The bill would not change any gun laws or expand background checks, but would provide grants to beef up the registry itself. To avoid a floor vote on other gun control measures, Republicans are considering tucking their preferred plan into a larger, must-pass spending bill.
“If [the background check bill] is attached to controversial stuff we’re not going to be able to get it done because there’s not enough floor time,” said Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 in Senate leadership and the main sponsor of the bill.
“So let’s get that done, put it in the bank, and then we can move on and talk about and vote on other issues.”
Although 40 Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, support the bill, the plan to pass it and move on has enraged Democrats, who accuse the GOP of hiding from a gun debate in order to stay in the good graces of the NRA. But several Republican senators said this week they also want an open-ended debate on gun control.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for John and I’m sure he’s got his reasons for feeling that way. I just don’t agree with him,” said Republican Sen. John Kennedy.
Cornyn’s bill is dubbed “Fix NICS” because it would provides funding to beef up the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. By law, federal law enforcement agencies must provide crime and certain mental health data to the database, and federally licensed gun retailers must check new sales against it. This is supposed to prevent people who have committed violent crimes from obtaining firearms.
The problem is that, for the system to be truly effective, it needs data from the state level. It is voluntary for state bodies to contribute data and oftentimes they just don’t. A 2017 Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that in 2014 there were 7.8 million warrant files stored across the 40 states that kept their own local databases. Yet the federal database had just 2.1 million files.
Fix NICS would require states to contribute to the system, though there is no penalty for not doing so. Instead the bill incentivizes cooperation by directing the attorney general to give “affirmative preference” to grant applications from states that comply.
The shooters who committed the Sutherland Springs, Texas, church shooting, the Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting, and the Virginia Tech shooting all had a history that could have barred them from owning firearms. But none were actually stopped by the system.
What the bill does not do is fill the loopholes in the background check system. Currently, only federally regulated gun retailers are required to check new purchases against NICS. Sales online or to family or at gun shows have no such requirement.
Though Fix NICS has 71 cosponsors, many of whom are Democrats, Schumer is blocking a vote on the bill. Democrats say the bill alone is an insufficient response that will not stop school shootings — something Trump himself said in a televised meeting with members of Congress following the Parkland shooting that left 17 people dead. Democrats are instead pushing for an open gun control debate where where both parties can put forward amendments.
“It’s a token gesture towards gun safety. If they think that’s going to satisfy the students, their parents and the rest of America, they’re wrong,” said Democratic Whip Dick Durbin.
That leaves one obvious way for Republicans to pass Fix NICS while avoiding a larger gun debate — by attaching it to a spending bill that must pass to avoid a government shutdown next week. At least nine Democrats are needed to pass that bill. Some have already said they will not support the inclusion of Fix NICS if it means all other gun control measures are left out.
“If you want to vote against proposals, fine, vote against them. But are you going to say with these kids’ lives, these kids’ activism, we’re not even going to allow this to be debated on the floor of Congress?” said Sen. Tim Kaine.
Asked if he would block Fix NICS from being included in the spending bill if there was no floor debate on gun control, Schumer said, “we’ll negotiate things. We all think Fix NICS is not adequate to solve the problem.”
At the meeting with members of Congress two weeks ago, President Trump called for a series of gun control measures in response to the Parkland school shooting. These included expanding background checks, raising the legal age to purchase certain guns from 18 to 21, and arming some school staff.
There are a variety of gun control proposals that would have a chance at getting a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate.
Sens. Lindsey Graham and Richard Blumenthal introduced a bill empowering federal courts to issue warrants to take away a person’s guns on a temporary basis if they are deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. A half dozen states so far have such "red flag" laws in place. Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson proposed a more modest version of this plan that would encourage more states to adopt this system.
Sens. Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey have also discussed reviving their bill to expand background checks to online sales and gun shows, though not private sales to friends and family. That legislation, written in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting fell just six votes short of passing in 2013.
There are also broader proposals, such as raising the legal age for purchasing certain weapons from 18 to 21 or banning certain assault rifles altogether. But those ideas are seen as having no chance of passing the Senate, let alone the House, unless Trump threw his full weight behind them. Instead, Trump appears to have backed away from his earlier pronouncements.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has spoken supportively of Fix NICS and said he is looking at ways to bring it to the floor. But when asked about his legislative schedule Tuesday, he listed a banking bill, a sex trafficking bill, and the spending bill. He made no mention of a debate on guns.
Paul McLeod is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
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