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House Democrats’ gun agenda to start with where they might get GOP votes

Early bills will be more narrow in focus to avoid a pileup of go-nowhere legislation

Rep. Mike Thompson  is chairman of the House Democrats’ Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Mike Thompson  is chairman of the House Democrats’ Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Democratic supporters who helped sweep in a new class of lawmakers promising a gun law overhaul might have to wait longer than they’d like for that agenda to materialize in the form of bills.

While Democrats wrestled back the majority in the House, Republicans still control the Senate, and Donald Trump is still in the Oval Office.

That doesn’t mean Democrats won’t try to win over some Republicans who have expressed interest in tackling a few gun law issues, such as outlawing bump stocks and closing a loophole that allows private arms vendors to sell guns without federal regulation.

So far, House Democrats have indicated they will prioritize measures that have at least some bipartisan support, bills they think could eventually garner 60 votes in the Senate and Trump’s signature.

That nitty-gritty coalition-building process could slow the number of bills that make it to the House floor. But if advocates want results and not a pileup of legislation that is dead-on-arrival in the Senate, that’s the most realistic approach, Democrats said.

“You start with those that you’re most likely to get support from across the aisle, and you build up to things that people consider more extreme, like bans,” Democratic Rep. Dina Titus of Nevada said.

Titus represents parts of Las Vegas, where in 2017 a gunman equipped his rifles with bump stocks to unleash more than 1,100 rounds from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay resort onto fans at a country music concert, killing 58 people and injuring more than 800 others.

Titus is working with Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick to reintroduce a bill that would authorize the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives to regulate the movement and sale of bump stocks that allow semiautomatic weapons to fire at the rate of a machine gun.

Also watch: Pelosi introducing gun violence bill — ‘Enough is enough’

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The Trump administration moved in December to unilaterally ban bump stocks by reclassifying them as automatic weapons, but the Gun Owners of America sued the administration over the policy.

Other gun safety bills House Democrats will propose in their nascent majority will be similarly narrow and issue-specific instead of sweeping packages that failed in 2009 and 2010 when they controlled the House, had 60 votes in the Senate and held the White House.

Take HR 8, for instance, introduced by five Democrats and five Republicans earlier this month that would require gun sellers, including private vendors, to conduct background checks on buyers.

“That’s the only thing in the bill,” said Robin Lloyd, a former Democratic House aide who now heads the government affairs program at former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ namesake gun control advocacy group.

“We don’t want to add on any of the extra provisions that have been added on in the past. … We believe that having the strongest and most narrow version of the bill is going to bring the most success in support from Congress,” Lloyd said.

‘We can do both’

Getting the universal background checks bill over to the Senate is priority No. 1 for House Democrats steering the gun agenda.

“We will hold hearings, we will have a vote, and this legislation will finally pass the House,” Rep. Mike Thompson of California, chairman of the Democratic Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, said earlier this month. 

The Democrats’ freshman class includes members who made gun control a top campaign issue and will be under pressure to show they are following through on their promises.

HR 8 and closing the bump stocks loophole are a good start, Democrats have said, but some could become frustrated by the grinding pace of getting legislation to the floor for votes. Some of those members will almost certainly introduce bills that never make it to the floor because they don’t have support in the Senate or aren’t high enough on the list of committee priorities.

Titus said that such bills shouldn’t be perceived as politically motivated, for members to tout back home in their districts.

“Everything is political, but a lot of people ran on this. We’ve got [three] new members in the Democratic caucus who’ve lost members of their family as victims of gun violence,” Titus said. “So this is very personal to them. It doesn’t have anything to do with making a political statement.”

Democrats are confident that introducing bills with no chance of emerging from committee will not hamper their task force’s work building Republican support for more modest, narrow proposals that already have some GOP co-sponsors.

“We can do both,” a House Democratic aide with knowledge of gun law strategy said, flatly.

‘Allies with gavels’

With their new majority, Democrats can now dictate the agenda: Not only do they control committee hearing topics, but they’re also responsible for scheduling the witnesses they want to bring in.

“Now we have allies with gavels that are going to start having to push this forward,” said Peter Ambler, Giffords’ former chief of staff and her advocacy group’s executive director.

A Democratic spokesman for the House Judiciary Committee, which has broad jurisdiction over federal gun laws and ATF regulations, indicated that Chairman Jerrold Nadler wants to hold hearings on gun violence and oversight of ATF within the first 100 days of the new Congress.

But the gun law overhaul debate in Congress won’t be confined to the Judiciary Committee hearing room.

Thompson has spoken with each new committee chairperson about holding hearings on gun issues that fall under their jurisdiction.

Expect Education Committee Democrats to pepper Secretary Betsy DeVos with questions about what her department has done to address school shootings; Energy and Commerce Democrats to probe experts about the effects of gun violence on survivors’ mental health and fitness to work; and Appropriations Democrats to ask Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials what resources they need to study correlations between gun violence and mental health and substance abuse.

“I think we could feasibly see every single House Committee talk about gun violence in some way,” Lloyd said. 

‘Look down the street’

Some individual states in recent years have beefed up gun regulations: 20 have background check laws that go beyond federal regulations.

In 2018, eight governors — including five Republicans — signed extreme risk protection order, or ERPO, laws that allow law enforcement to temporarily seize guns from people whose family members have reported them as potential violent actors.

But Democrats have argued that the lack of strong federal laws undermines state regulations restricting access to guns.

Gun violence has steadily climbed in Washington, D.C., in recent years despite strict city laws limiting weapons sales.

Greg Jackson, the communications director for D.C.’s parks and recreation department, blames that on the ease of getting a gun in neighboring states.

“As strong as the gun laws can be in the city, if you have these weak gun laws in Virginia, in Maryland, or you don’t tackle this as a federal issue … then they’re just going to keep coming into these cities that are trying hard to fight back,” he said.

Jackson indicated that House members should look beyond their districts’ boundaries when considering how federal gun legislation and gun violence affect Americans.

“I just hope that Congress, while they turn a blind eye maybe in their districts — because maybe it’s not something that’s happened in their districts — that they just turn on the news, or drive down the street, or visit the elementary school right down the street from them,” Jackson said.

“They’ll see a lot of families like the ones here [in D.C.]”

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