House Leaders Retreat to Corners on Gun Policy

Las Vegas shooting does not change framework of debate

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said the House has passed legislation to address gun violence, in the form of mental health legislation. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said the House has passed legislation to address gun violence, in the form of mental health legislation. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted October 3, 2017 at 1:15pm

Congressional leaders retreated to their familiar positions on gun safety Tuesday, with Republicans saying it is an issue of mental health and Democrats calling for stricter background checks.

Sunday night’s mass shooting at a Las Vegas country music festival was the deadliest in American history, with at least 59 people killed and more than 500 injured.

President Donald Trump is planning to visit Las Vegas on Wednesday, and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said he and Nevada GOP Rep. Mark Amodei will travel with the president. Three of McCarthy’s California constituents were killed during the shooting, and at least two others remain hospitalized.

The incident, orchestrated by a lone gunman with no known ties to foreign terrorist organizations, has sparked yet another debate about gun control and whether Congress has a responsibility to act.

Same debate

Democrats say lawmakers cannot continue to ignore the need to strengthen the country’s gun laws, while many Republicans counter that they’ve already taken steps to address the issue with mental health legislation they passed last year.

“One of the things that we’ve learned from these shootings is that often underneath this is a diagnosis of mental illness,” Speaker Paul D. Ryan said Tuesday, citing the mental health legislation passed last year as just one example of things Congress has done.

That measure aimed to increase the profile of mental health treatment on the federal level by, among other things, creating an assistant secretary for mental health in the federal government and streamlining coordination in addressing mental health and substance abuse. It was eventually folded into the so-called 21st Century Cures Act and signed by President Barack Obama in December.

One of the first acts by the current Congress in February, however, was to use the Congressional Review Act to overturn an Obama-era rule that aimed to make it more difficult for mentally disabled people to acquire guns. 

Aside from those actions, other examples are hard to find. Congress last seriously debated gun control in 2013, after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Democrats led the Senate then and tried to pass background check legislation, but the effort died amid Republican opposition.

Republicans have since blocked further Democratic attempts to offer legislation after other shootings. GOP lawmakers say the bills Democrats have proposed would infringe upon people’s Second Amendment rights and do little, if anything, to prevent mass shootings.

“Democrats are not interested in taking people’s hunting guns away from them or their handguns,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer said Tuesday.

What Democrats want to do is ensure people who should not have guns cannot purchase them legally, the Maryland Democrat said.
“Does that mean they won’t get them illegally? Maybe not,” Hoyer added.

Going forward

Nonetheless, Democrats are using the Las Vegas shooting to call for a vote on universal background check legislation and to request Republican leaders form a select committee to examine other legislative solutions. GOP leaders could at least agree to a bipartisan task force, Hoyer said.

“It is incomprehensible that the president or others would say this is not the time to debate this,” he said. “When is the time to debate this?”

Hoyer said Republicans, ironically, are moving in the other direction with a bill that includes a provision to relax restrictions on gun silencers. The minority whip said silencers make it more difficult for law enforcement to find out where gunfire originates.

GOP leaders had been considering bringing that bill to the floor soon but currently have no plans to do so.

“That bill is not scheduled now. I don’t know when it’s going to be scheduled,” Ryan said. “Right now, we’re focused on passing our budget.”

The longstanding partisan divide on gun control is unlikely to let up anytime soon. Hoyer accused Republicans of cowering to the National Rifle Association, while also acknowledging that pushing for stronger gun control laws has not helped Democrats in political campaigns.

The Democrats’ sit-in on the House floor following last year’s mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, resonated with the American people, but that didn’t translate to votes, Hoyer said.

“It doesn’t seem to make a great difference at that ballot box, and that’s frustrating,” he said. Democrats will still continue to talk about the issue, Hoyer said.

But they aren’t likely to organize another sit-in, according to another House leader. 

Democratic Caucus Vice Chairwoman Linda T. Sánchez said there was no mention of such a move at Tuesday morning’s caucus meeting in response to the Vegas shooting. 

The California Democrat said that while last year’s protest galvanized the nation’s attention, changes in House rules as a result of the sit-in have made it harder for Democrats to protest in the chamber. 

“There have been issues with regard to complaints filed with the Ethics Committee for engaging in those sit-ins and rules of the House, which the speaker seems intent on enforcing,” Sánchez said.

Rema Rahman contributed to this report.Clarification 3:45 p.m. | An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the effect the Democrats’ sit-in protests had on calls for gun safety.