Democracy Dies in Darkness

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Congress hasn’t sorted out what to do about bump stocks. The Texas shooting isn’t likely to jump-start debate, either.

By Ed O'Keefe, Sean Sullivan

November 6, 2017 at 7:31 PM

A resident passes the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Tex., on Nov. 6, 2017. The church was the scene of the deadliest mass shooting in Texas history. (Eric Gay/AP)

The massacre that killed more than two dozen people at a Texas church on Sunday isn't likely to jump-start attempts on Capitol Hill to enact fresh legislation addressing gun violence or mental health, according to lawmakers in both parties.

Coming just a month after the mass shooting in Las Vegas that killed 58 people, Congress hasn't even made good yet on bipartisan resolve to address an obscure element of that attack. Remember "bump stocks"?

Instead, the shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., seemed to only further coarsen the tone surrounding a decades-long fight over gun rights in the United States.

"No one is safe so long as Congress chooses to do absolutely nothing in the face of this epidemic," Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a vocal advocate for gun control, said in a scathing statement hours after the shooting. "The time is now for Congress to shed its cowardly cover and do something."

But just steps from the church crime scene on Monday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) assailed the news media and Democrats for immediately seeking legislative solutions to the latest outbreak of gun violence.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) speaks during a news conference about gun control legislation at the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 4, 2017. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

"It is an unfortunate thing that the immediate place the media goes after any tragedy, after any murder, is politicizing it. We don't need politics right now," he told reporters at a news conference.

Noting that a terrorism suspect used a rented truck last week to kill eight people along a New York City bike path, Cruz added, "Evil is evil is evil and will use the weaponry that is available."

Although Democrats and some Republicans have introduced dozens of proposals this year to address gun violence, there is no bill poised for consideration in a House or Senate committee or scheduled for an up-or-down vote.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) signaled Monday that there are no immediate plans to take up legislation to address gun violence.

"It's hard to envision a foolproof way to prevent individual outrages by evil people," he told reporters in Kentucky. Echoing Cruz, McConnell noted that last week in New York, "you had a person who figured out he could kill people by driving his automobile up on the sidewalk. It's a very, very challenging thing."

Aides to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) declined to comment, referring reporters to the House Judiciary Committee. A senior committee aide would say only that the panel is in touch with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the FBI about the shooting.

ATF is also set to brief Judiciary Committee members this week on the use of bump stocks, aides said.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), far right, speaks alongside House GOP leaders at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 24, 2017. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Congress seemed to get closer than it has in many years last month, when the Las Vegas shooting brought attention to bump stocks, an obscure device used to accelerate gunfire on some weapons used in the massacre. In subsequent days, Republicans especially expressed alarm about how such an unknown accessory could cause such widespread violence. Lawmakers in both parties quickly agreed that steps should be taken to regulate their use.

The National Rifle Association, usually mum in the wake of mass shootings, said it supported restricting access to bump stocks. So did the Trump administration. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a longtime advocate for gun restrictions, unveiled a plan to restrict the sale and use of bump stocks that was quickly co-sponsored by more than 30 Democratic senators. In the House, Republicans and Democrats quickly banded around a similar idea.

"We are continuing to work on this," Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) said. He co-sponsored a bipartisan plan to restrict bump stocks with Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), who didn't return requests for comment Monday.

But bump stock legislation has stalled as ATF is reviewing a 2010 ruling that authorized their sale.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a close ally of House GOP leaders, said Monday that lawmakers should wait for more information on the Texas shooting before rushing to judgment.

"The first thing we need to know is know a little bit more about this," Cole said in an interview.

"If it turns out he broke existing laws," Cole added, "adding new laws," would not likely be an effective countermeasure. Rather, focusing on enforcing laws on the books would be preferable.

Cole said the issue of bump stocks should be solved in the executive branch. "The quickest fix is to reverse the administrative decision" allowing the devices, he said.

But Moulton disputed that, saying that "any Republican who tries to put this on the administration is only doing that because he or she is scared of the NRA."

Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), who chairs a gun violence prevention task force for House Democrats, said Monday that he's hopeful that a bipartisan background-check bill he unveiled last week with Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) could pick up traction.

The Public Safety and Second Amendment Rights Protection Act would expand the existing background-check system to cover all commercial firearm sales, including weapons sold at gun shows, online and in classified ads. But the bill would leave open exceptions for transfers between friends and family.

"There is no single law that can put an end to mass shootings or gun violence, but there are certainly proactive steps we can take to keep guns out of the hands of felons, domestic abusers, and the dangerously mentally ill," King said in a statement. Background checks, he added, "keep guns out of the hands of people we all agree shouldn't have guns."

Thompson noted that a similar version of his bill with King they introduced last year had at least 188 co-sponsors in both parties. He ruled out a new push by Democrats to use procedural tactics to force votes on such bills or to stage another sit-in on the House floor as some Democrats did last year in a bid to force votes.

"We need the majority party to screw up some courage and start working with these issues," Thompson said. The push to enact changes has been "a solo effort ever since Sandy Hook" — the 2012 shooting at a Connecticut elementary school that left 28 people dead.

Related: Read more at PowerPost


Ed O’Keefe has covered Congress and national politics since 2008.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.

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