Gun Debate on Hill Unchanged by Orlando Killings
The gun control debate among lawmakers followed a familiar pattern in the wake of the Florida nightclub shooting on Sunday: Democrats pushed for new gun control measures and Republicans pushed back, arguing the measures wouldn’t have prevented the massacre but would violate Second Amendment rights.
The response in the hours following the deadliest mass shooting in American history, in which Omar Mateen killed 49 people at a popular gay nightclub in Orlando, underscores the parties’ disparate views on gun control and how unlikely it is that any legislative action limiting the sale of firearms will make it through Congress this session.
The debate differed from some in the past in that Mateen allegedly was radicalized and pledged support to the terrorist group ISIS. But President Obama said Monday he hoped the debate would not follow an “either/or” pattern between fighting terrorism and keeping guns out of the hands of unstable individuals.
“It's not an either/or. It's a both/and,” Obama said. “We have to go after these terrorist organizations and hit them hard. We have to counter extremism, but we also have to make sure that it's not easy for somebody who decides they want to harm people in this country to be able to obtain weapons to get at them.”
Still, despite Obama’s warning, the debate on Capitol Hill fell into a similar pattern, with the two parties advocating starkly opposite views, rendering gun control reforms dead on arrival.
Democrats zeroed in on legislation to make it harder for suspected terrorists to obtain firearms, a measure that failed in the Senate, mostly along party lines, in December. Mateen had previously been on the U.S. terrorism watch list, the Los Angeles Times reported, but was removed from the list after multiple investigations were closed. Democratic senators vowed to force a debate and vote on the so-called “terror gap” measure in the coming weeks.
New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the third-ranking Senate Democrat, said pushing for other measures, like expanded background checks and an assault weapons ban, were possible, but the terror-watch list represented the “logical and first and most likely-to-pass step."
“Are we going to take the painfully obvious, common-sense steps and make sure that terrorists can’t get guns?” Schumer said on a conference call with reporters Monday. “Or are we going to bow down to the NRA [National Rifle Association] so that suspected terrorists can continue to get their hands on guns?”
Schumer said he wasn’t certain the law would have prevented the Orlando shooter from obtaining firearms, which he did legally in the days before the massacre, but that it was impossible to know because of the loophole that allows suspects on the watch list to purchase guns.
“Would they have blocked [the shooter’s] gun? I think it’s likely they would have, but we’ll never know because this law was not on the books,” he said.
Republicans pushed back. In December, all but one – Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk – voted against the measure to close the loophole, citing concerns that it would potentially prevent law-abiding citizens from obtaining guns, restricting their constitutional rights. They also raised concerns about the validity of the watch list itself.
Asked whether Mateen should have been able to obtain a weapon, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, replied, “He had a gun license."
Asked the same question, South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune said his understanding was that Mateen acquired his guns legally. Asked if the law should be changed to prevent that in the future, he cited concerns over constitutional rights.
“Not for law abiding citizens,” Thune said. “And that’s the challenge, the balance you’re always going to have to strike here."
The response on the House side was much the same. Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., the chief deputy whip, told Politico that Democrats were conflating the gun control debate with responding to terrorism.
“The greater debate about gun control should be a greater debate about gun control," McHenry added. "There are bigger issues than simply playing politics with guns."
Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, said a “knee jerk reaction” was “inappropriate,” and that there was a need for figuring out how to combat a new pattern of terrorism rather than focus specifically on gun control measures, though he added that there could be ways to make the current background check system and gun laws already on the books work better.
“The same people that will tell you we can’t let this shooter depict all Muslims want this shooter to depict all gun owners,” Stivers said. “That’s ironic to me."
The NRA has been silent since the Orlando attack, not releasing a statement nor updating its Twitter account since before the weekend. But groups on the other side pushing for gun control measures said the intersection of fears over terrorism and debates about gun control didn’t change the way they would approach the issue.
“I think there’s always been an intersection ... right now we see it very clearly because of the context of what happened in Orlando and how it relates to terrorism and hate on the LGBTQ community, but this isn’t necessarily new,” said Erika Soto Lamb, a spokeswoman for Everytown For Gun Safety. “We have always been focused on these types of legislation to keep guns out of dangerous people’s hands."
There is polling to suggest the majority of Americans support these measures. Lamb cited a poll that three-quarters of gun owners support closing the terror loophole, and Gallup released a report Monday that said 71 percent of Americans thought closing the loophole was an effective campaign against terrorism – and that 55 percent of Americans thought making it more difficult to obtain assault weapons was an effective anti-terrorism method as well.
The issue boiled over on the House floor Monday evening when, following a moment of silence for the Orlando victims, Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., attempted to inquire about gun control legislation Democrats have pushed in the past. Speaker Paul Ryan cut off Clyburn and directed the House to finish votes on legislation already at hand. Democrats chanted, “Where’s the bill?” and “No leadership” on the floor, but their efforts went nowhere.
Like the rest of the debate, it was a familiar scene: Democrats were angered that Republicans chose not to vote on gun control legislation, but they were unable to advance the issue.
“The fact is that a moment of silence is an act of respect, and we supported that. But it is a not a license to do nothing," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters off the House floor afterward, according to The Hill. “Members have just had enough of having one minute, a moment of silence on the floor, and then take no action.”