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On Capitol Hill, little chance of a legislative response to latest mass shooting

Senators on Capitol Hill weighed in on the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland, Fla. (Video: Jordan Frasier/The Washington Post)

Lawmakers fell back to their standard partisan positions Thursday, a day after a mass shooting at a South Florida high school, leaving little chance of a legislative response to the continuing crisis of shooters killing people in public places.

Democrats reissued demands for enhanced background checks for gun purchases and a possible ban of certain weapons. Republicans brushed those proposals aside and called for more drawn-out study of the shooter’s motives and how he carried out a massacre of 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

“This is not a time to jump to some conclusion not knowing the full facts,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said at his weekly news briefing. “We’ve got a lot more information we need to know.”

“Once again, we see the urgency for Congress to take true common-sense action to prevent gun violence,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at her weekly briefing just before Ryan spoke.

But there is no real urgency on Capitol Hill to do anything. Republicans generally support gun rights and enjoy the political support of the National Rifle Association. Democrats, despite polling showing broad support for more gun regulation, seldom campaign on the issue and therefore put almost no fear in GOP lawmakers that they will pay a political price for their inaction.

In fact, in rural areas, Democrats are openly campaigning as gun lovers in an effort to appeal to hunters.

“Still loves to shoot,” the narrator said in the first ad aired by Conor Lamb, the Democrat running a surprisingly competitive race for a special election for a House seat in southwestern Pennsylvania. Six seconds into the introductory ad, the former federal prosecutor is shown firing a rifle.

NRA support for restricting ‘bump stocks’ reflects impact of Las Vegas massacre

The only legislation directly related to gun violence is sitting in the Senate, after the House gave its approval in December. But it is a mixed bag, including provisions that would eliminate loopholes in the federal background check system — while also including the NRA’s highest priority, expanding the ability of Americans to carry concealed weapons across state lines.

Democrats oppose the concealed-carry provision. And in the Senate, where it would require 10 or more Democrats to support the bill to clear a filibuster, the legislation seems to have ground to a halt.

The October massacre of 58 people at a Las Vegas music festival led many Republicans to consider the ban of an accessory, a “bump stock,” that shooters can use to turn a semiautomatic rifle into a fully automatic weapon.

A bump stock allowed the killer to inflict mass casualties never before seen in active-shooter situations.

Rather than take up legislation, Ryan decided to follow the lead of the officials at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which received letters from Republicans asking ATF to declare that bump stocks violated the law. The rulemaking process at federal agencies takes time. Four months after the request from Capitol Hill, the agency has just finished the public comment period.

ATF has not said when the regulatory issue will be resolved. Congress could preempt that and just pass a legislative fix, but there are no signs of movement.

Ryan pointed to the passage of the 21st Century Cures Act that included an expansion of federal officials working to improve mental health, including a new office inside the Health and Human Services Department.

“We passed legislation on mental health. We want to make sure that if someone’s in the mental health system, that they don’t get a gun if they’re not supposed to get a gun,” he said.

That bill passed in December 2016, the last month of Barack Obama’s presidency.

How ‘pro-gun’ Robert P. Casey Jr. became an evangelist for gun control laws

The typical Republican response to this shooting, and other mass shootings, is to ask for more time to study the issue. “Over the coming days I hope to have a full account of what happened, what was known before this tragedy,” said Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.).

Eight months after a 2012 mass shooting at a movie theater in Colorado, the state approved laws that created stricter background checks and limited the size of bullet magazine clips.

Gardner said he was not ready to discuss similar federal laws. He also deflected attention from the alleged shooter’s use of a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle, turning instead to how the school system and other local officials handled the warning signs of the 19-year-old’s troubled background.

“There’s a lot of red flags that seemed to have been visible,” he said.

Democrats have grown increasingly frustrated by GOP leaders who offer up “thoughts and prayers” to victims’ families after mass shootings while not considering legislation to enforce greater gun control.

“Look, what we need to do is address this issue. Frankly, we want to look at this comprehensively, and we’re going to undertake action to do just that and try to come up with some comprehensive solution,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters.

Hoyer noted that Democrats have gone to great lengths to highlight the issue, including an overnight protest on the House floor just after the massacre in an Orlando nightclub in June 2016.

As Pelosi and Hoyer noted Thursday, the only outcome from that was an investigation into what rules Democrats broke on the House floor. “Very disappointing,” Hoyer said.

A month later, in her presidential nomination acceptance speech in Philadelphia, Hillary Clinton highlighted the issue and called for “common-sense reforms” to keep guns “out of the hands of criminals.”

The issue then largely disappeared from the campaign, except for the flow of messaging from the NRA, which ran $15 million in ads in swing states warning that Clinton would leave Americans “defenseless” by taking away their guns.

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