President Obama’s Thursday remarks reacting to the deaths of nine victims at the hands of an gunman in Oregon were notable for their emotion, perhaps, but not for their content.
“We’re going to have to change our laws,” he said, addressing a mass shooting for the 11th time as president. “And this is not something I can do by myself. I’ve got to have a Congress, and I’ve got to have state legislatures and governors who are willing to work with me on this.”
But a Congress that has been deeply at odds with Obama on health care, immigration, fiscal policy and other major issues has been especially intractable on gun policy, and there is little expectation that lawmakers will take any action to modestly expand federal background checks, let alone enact broader firearms restrictions.
That impotence and the unanswered question of which laws, if any, might have prevented the Oregon tragedy have left gun-control advocates on Capitol Hill with little to do but vent their frustration.
“Why in the hell don’t we bring a bill to the floor that would provide for the first line of defense against people who shouldn’t have guns — criminals and those who are dangerously mentally ill?” Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, said in an interview Friday. “This is what they refer to as a no-brainer.”
But it has been more than two years since Capitol Hill saw its last significant gun-control vote, following the December 2012 killings of 20 children and six adults in a Newtown, Conn., elementary school.
Two senators — Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), both previously endorsed by the National Rifle Association — proposed legislation that would expand current federal background checks to include weapons sold at gun shows and on the Internet.
The proposal came to a Senate floor vote in April 2013 as an amendment to a broader gun-safety bill. The NRA opposed the expansion of background checks, saying in a statement that they “will not prevent the next shooting, will not solve violent crime and will not keep our kids safe in schools.”
It fell five votes short of the 60 necessary for passage, while another amendment that would have expanded gun rights, by granting reciprocity for concealed-carry permits from one state to another, fell only three votes short.
Since then, the outlook for gun-control advocates has gotten even more grim: Five of the Senate Democrats who voted in favor of the Manchin-Toomey amendment have since been replaced by NRA-endorsed Republicans.
Numerous Democrats issued statements Thursday and Friday calling for new background checks or other gun-control measures. But Manchin has no plans to revive the measure in the wake of the Oregon shooting, a spokesman said Friday: “We don’t have any statement on the shooting and don’t have any plans to reintroduce the bill.”
Toomey would consider backing any similar legislation, his office said, but concedes that “the votes don’t exist in the Senate today” to advance it. “He will continue to work with his colleagues and look for ways to move the ball forward, including the option of reintroducing the bill,” a spokesman said.
In the House, a conservative Republican bloc of 200 members constitutes a sizeable obstacle to any expansion of gun restrictions.
A bipartisan group of House members introduced a bill earlier this year proposing expanded background checks similar to those that the Senate considered in 2013. Former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the Democrat from Arizona grievously wounded in a 2011 shooting, appeared at a March event to unveil the bill.
“Fight, fight, fight,” she told lawmakers. “Be bold, be courageous; the nation’s counting on you.”
The House has taken no action on the bill, and Thompson, a co-sponsor, said his Republican colleagues have made it clear that it will not proceed. “Basically, they’re not interested in doing anything that’s going to benefit Obama,” he said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called for action on the bill, as well as the creation of a Select Committee on Gun Violence, in a Friday letter to retiring Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio): “As Members of Congress, how can we in good conscience engage in moments of silence to honor these victims of gun violence, if we refuse to take action?”
But even when Congress was under the solid control of Democrats, from 2007 through 2010, no serious effort was made to renew the ban on assault weapons or to impose stricter background checks on those purchasing guns. In fact, conservative Republicans deep in the minority even found ways to expand gun owners’ rights — to bring guns onto Amtrak trains and into national parks.
Those Democratic majorities were built on seats in rural parts of states such as North Carolina, West Virginia, Indiana, Idaho and Florida, as well as Senate seats in Montana, Alaska, Missouri and Arkansas, and lawmakers in these places touted support for gun rights. That was partly out of fear of political retribution from the NRA but also because of a cultural divide from the party’s base of largely urban and suburban voters who have been alarmed by the mass shootings.
Perhaps no other Democrat summed up this feeling quite like Manchin: To demonstrate his independence from Obama during his 2010 Senate run, he aired an ad showing him firing a rifle at a copy of climate-change legislation pushed by House Democrats, vividly demonstrating his support of both gun rights and coal production.
Following Thursday’s shooting, in keeping with past practice, most Republican lawmakers and gun rights organizations either extended their condolences to the victims’ families or remained silent entirely.
Gun Owners of America, a gun rights group that bills itself as more uncompromising than the NRA, was one of the few voices to respond to Obama’s entreaties, calling them “offensive.” It would be better, the group argued, to give law-abiding gun owners more freedom to carry their weapons in public.
One proposal could emerge on the congressional agenda in the aftermath of the Oregon shooting: Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who holds an A-plus rating from the NRA, proposed legislation in August to keep people who are mentally ill from purchasing firearms by expanding the records sent to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and improving mental-health-treatment programs.
Gun-control groups have expressed doubts about the bill, saying one provision could make it easier for veterans who have been declared mentally incompetent to obtain firearms. The legislation would require a court to intervene in those cases.
But the NRA’s backing, as well as the fact that Cornyn is the Senate majority whip and a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, gives it a chance to emerge from a Republican Congress.
Cornyn has not publicly promoted the legislation in the shooting’s aftermath, but an aide said that work continues to line up supporters and that a House companion bill could soon be introduced.
Thompson said he had not reviewed Cornyn’s bill but is “willing to look at anybody’s idea.”
“Bring them up. If they don’t like my ideas, bring their own ideas up,” he said of Republicans. “Do something. These guys, they work around the clock to build a majority. You’ve got it; do something with it.”
Karoun Demirjian, Catherine Ho, Colby Itkowitz and Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.