Congress rarely acts on gun control despite mass shootings

Posted at 5:44 AM, Aug 05, 2019

Over the weekend, a gunman in El Paso, Texas, killed 20 people. Less than 24 hours later, another in Dayton, Ohio, killed nine.

But don't expect Congress to act.

Congress has long struggled with addressing gun violence in America, even in the wake of mass shootings going back to Columbine in 1999.

Before this weekend, there were 18 high-profile, mass shootings at least as deadly as Dayton in the past dozen years, including at a concert in Las Vegas, Nevada, at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia, and a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, to name only a few.

In that time, the response from Congress maintained a pattern where solutions were offered but few were passed into law.

Two historic shootings where Congress failed to act

Even after two of the most violent episodes during the past two administrations, the President moved to act when Congress did not.

After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 in which 26 victims -- including 20 children -- were murdered, Congress failed to pass legislation expanding background checks to gun shows and Internet sales. President Barack Obama instead issued executive action to strengthen the background check system. Republicans, which had control of the House, then took control of Congress by winning the Senate in 2014 and the White House in 2016, halting that bill and other measures.

And soon after the Las Vegas shooting in October 2017, the deadliest mass shooting in US modern history, lawmakers failed again to advance legislation, this time to ban or regulate bump stocks that make rifles fire at a faster rate. More than a year later, President Donald Trump banned the devices with a new Justice Department rule, which withstood court challenges. It went into effect in March.

There's little evidence that the latest mass shootings will affect the status quo on Capitol Hill, even though the Pew Research Center found the majority of Republican voters favor laws tightening gun restrictions, such as making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks. Half of Republicans even believe in banning assault-style weapons. From 2017 to 2018, there was a modest increase in Americans' support for stricter gun legislation from 52% to 57%, according to a survey published in 2018 by Pew.

The last major gun legislation Congress passed was in 1994, when it banned in most cases to make or possess semiautomatic assault weapons. That law expired in 2004 under the George W. Bush administration and a Republican-controlled Congress.

Stalled in the Senate

After the Democrats took over the House earlier this year, they passed the most significant gun legislation in a generation, requiring background checks on all firearm sales in the country, and another bill extending the background check review period from three days to 10 days.

The Senate has yet to consider the bills.

After this weekend's mass shootings, Democratic leaders blamed Republicans controlling the Senate for blocking them.

They began demanding that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell take action this week, arguing they could help prevent the next large-scale tragedy. McConnell's office did not say whether the Republican leader is open to dealing with gun violence with new legislation.

"Sickening to learn this morning of another mass murder in Dayton, Ohio overnight," said McConnell in a statement. "Two horrifying acts of violence in less than 24 hours. We stand with law enforcement as they continue working to keep Americans safe and bring justice."

It is unlikely that Congress will consider much at all while they're home for the August recess.

"The Republican Senate must stop their outrageous obstruction and join the House to put an end to the horror and bloodshed that gun violence inflicts every day in America," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "Enough is enough."

Rep. Jerry Nadler, the New York Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary committee that writes gun legislation, pointed out that the El Paso, Texas, gunman is the author of an anti-immigrant document that lays out his motivations for the shooting, according to law enforcement officials. Nadler then urged Trump to "stop his racist rhetoric that has the effect of encouraging mass murder."

On his way back to the White House, Trump ignored questions on white nationalism, and did reiterate something he's said a lot in recent times.

"This is a mental illness problem," he told reporters. But he did say he has spoken with members of Congress and would be making a statement Monday morning.

"We have to get it stopped. This has been going on for years, for years and years in our country. We have to get it stopped."

The response to the shootings from Republicans was a mix of prayers for the victims, solidarity with the law enforcement working on the cases and a push for modest legislation.

GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, highlighted a March hearing he led on the Senate Judiciary Committee to encourage states to pass laws to allow families or law enforcement officers to petition a court for an order to temporarily restrict a person's access to firearms if they show signs of harming themselves or others.

"May not have mattered here, but Red Flag laws have proven to be effective in states that have them," Graham tweeted .

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas tweeted that gun violence is an example of an issue "where we simply don't have all the answers" but still needed to try to find them.

In recent years, he worked on a proposal to incentivize state and federal authorities to report more data to the country's gun background check system. When the measure known as "Fix NICS" passed last year, Cornyn said fixing the background check system would help "save lives and reduce the likelihood of what occurred in Parkland and Sutherland Springs from happening again."

"We have made progress: by improving the broken background check system, improving access to mental health treatment, by hardening soft targets like our schools, by enhanced training for law enforcement and mental health professionals," tweeted Cornyn on Sunday. "But we need to keep trying. Focusing on law abiding citizens exercising their constitutional rights solves nothing. We need to treat these crimes as problems to be solved, rather than one to be exploited for partisan political gain."