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House Democratic Leaders’ Mixed Outlook on Guns

Becerra is frustrated that gun control isn't more of a priority. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Becerra is frustrated that gun control isn't more of a priority. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

After last month’s shooting at an AME church in Charleston, House Democrats are renewing calls for gun-control legislation — but members of leadership have differing outlooks on prospects of anything happening.  

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, speaking to reporters at Wednesday’s weekly news conference, expressed frustration with Congress’ slow movement on important issues generally. “Congress is spectating,” he said. “We seem to be stuck here in Congress in a permanent moonwalk where very little gets done.”  

Responding to questions about gun control, considering both Charleston and the recent killing of an American citizen by an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco, Becerra, the No. 4 Democrat in the House, said there was a need to address the issue of access to weapons.  

“That’s some of the worse backsliding we’ve seen in Congress,” he said.  

The California Democrat continued that Congress needed to provide “common sense” gun legislation, such as background checks. “Simple stuff that the majority of Americans, the majority of gun-owners support,” he said. “Absolutely.  

“But can we get something like that done in this Congress?” Becerra asked. “No.”  

Becerra’s skepticism was not echoed at a separate news conference roughly an hour later, one where House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Assistant Minority Leader James E. Clyburn and Rep. Mike Thompson stood alongside families of victims of the Charleston shooting and other deadly gun incidents and pledged to fight for a bill in the House that would expand background checks for gun purchases.  

The bill would expand existing “Brady Act” background checks beyond just brick-and-mortar stores to purchases made online and at gun shows and would prevent felons, fugitives and domestic abusers from buying guns.  

It’s bipartisan, technically, as it’s sponsored by moderate New York Republican Rep. Peter T. King, and Thompson, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Democratic Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. King, however, is a member of the GOP rank and file and doesn’t have the influence to compel his leadership to put the legislation on the floor.  

Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence — a co-organizer of the event — felt optimistic that momentum for the movement had never been stronger. He cited the fact that since the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting in 2012, six states have passed new laws expanding Brady background checks to all gun sales.  

“It’s time for Congress to catch up,” he said Wednesday. “Every moment a politician in Washington decries gun violence while sitting idly by, he or she is responsible for preventable tragedies that continue to happen every single day.”  

In an earlier interaction with reporters, Becerra was doubtful momentum existed now when the deaths of so many young children at Sandy Hook inspired no House floor action.  

“We’ve been through this exercise,” Becerra said. “Sandy Hook gave us a clear reason to move. It appeared that we were gonna be there and then everything stalled and it’s unfortunate.”  

The later news conference featured the rallying cry, “I am Charleston and I demand a vote,” and included a tie-in with a Twitter hashtag, #IAmCharleston and personal stories from attendees directly affected by gun fatalities.  

Pelosi, a strong supporter of gun-control legislation, stressed Congress needs to act fast and Republicans need to get on board.  

“Congress has a moral responsibility to act,” she said. “What is so unclear? What do they not understand about that? The memory of these victims, the cries of their families deserve actions and results not words.”  

The two South Carolina lawmakers on hand agreed with Pelosi.  

“The bill that I have with Rep. King,” Thompson said, “It’s anti-crime, it’s pro-Second Amendment and it will help keep our kids, our spouses and our community safe. I’m here today to say that if the Republican leadership in the House and Senate have a better idea, let’s see it. If they don’t let’s vote.”  

Clyburn quoted Benjamin Franklin: “‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’ An ounce of prevention in this instance is just a vote on the Thompson-King bill.”  


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