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Republicans from moderate districts bucking their party on background checks

Five Republicans have co-sponsored gun safety legislation hitting the floor on Wednesday

Pennsylvania Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick has signed onto legislation to expand background checks. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Pennsylvania Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick has signed onto legislation to expand background checks. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Wednesday’s House vote on legislation expanding background checks for gun sales is a top priority for a handful of Republicans from more moderate districts.

But while they’re largely in line with public opinion on the issue — and with the chamber’s new Democratic majority — they’re at odds with other Republicans in Congress.

And some former and current elected Republicans worry that more of the conference isn’t backing the legislation, given the drubbing the GOP just suffered in the suburbs last fall.

Five Republicans and 227 Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors to legislation that California Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson introduced last month. Despite the partisan imbalance, they’re calling it the Bipartisan Background Check Act of 2019.

More Republicans could ultimately vote for final passage Wednesday. 

The legislation would require background checks for all gun sales between private individuals. Nearly 100 percent of Americans supported universal background checks in a recent Quinnipiac poll. But not all Democrats are on board with Thompson’s legislation, either. A handful of members from rural districts are not co-sponsoring the measure.

Good politics

Former GOP Reps. Carlos Curbelo of Florida and Ryan A. Costello of Pennsylvania, both strategic advisers to Everytown for Gun Safety, came out in support of the legislation in a recent Washington Post op-ed, arguing that it’s good Republican politics. Curbelo lost and Costello retired in 2018, allowing both to address their onetime colleagues freely.

But with Democrats picking up a net of 40 seats last fall, many Republicans in moderate districts who might have supported the legislation are no longer in Congress. Spending from gun control groups outpaced spending from gun rights groups during the midterms, according to  Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, for example, spent $30 million on races up and down the ballot last cycle. The gun safety organization is spending $400,000 on digital ads touting the background check legislation, and it’s planning additional advertising to hold lawmakers accountable for their votes.

But Republicans in safe seats aren’t necessarily feeling the heat.

“Neither one of these bills would have done anything to stop some of the tragedies that we’ve seen,” House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney said at a press conference Tuesday about two Democratic bills hitting the floor this week. “But what they would do is very clearly prevent law-abiding citizens from having access to firearms,” she said.

(Lawmakers are also expected to vote on another gun safety measure, one that would increase the maximum waiting period for background checks to be completed.)

‘Basic first step’

Republicans signing on to Thompson’s legislation include Reps. Peter T. King of New York, Brian Mast of Florida, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey and Fred Upton of Michigan, all of whom are original co-sponsors. 

“Background checks are the most basic first step we can take toward protecting our communities and keeping our kids safe,” Fitzpatrick said in the Speaker’s Lobby on Tuesday. The two-term Republican pointed to a green bracelet he’s been wearing for the past nine months. He’d been in the Canon tunnel, running late to votes one day, when a man stopped him and told him his daughter had been killed in the shooting in Parkland, Florida, last year. “The only ask he had was would I wear this in honor of his daughter,” Fitzpatrick recalled.

Fitzpatrick is one of only three Republicans left in the House who represents districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. But he insists his support for background checks has nothing to do with politics. 

“My job is to be a leader in my own right, and hopefully they see me as a leader,” Fitzpatrick said. “True leaders lead the polls; they don’t follow them.”

Supporting background checks, he argued, is part of his commitment to the Second Amendment.

“I am a supporter of the Second Amendment, but I believe the biggest threat to the Second Amendment is when we don’t take the steps to fix or plug holes that are resulting in weapons being used to hurt people,” Fitzpatrick said. 

Mast, a two-term Republican who came out in support of an assault weapons ban in a New York Times op-ed last year, said he gets “both pushback and support” in his district over background checks. He thinks it’s the right thing to do. But he understands why other Republicans are resistant.“Because it’s not as easy to say, easy to do when you go out there, and you’re taking a convenience out of people’s lives. That’s certainly a concern,” Mast said Tuesday off the House floor.

Mast easily survived re-election in 2018, but he was a Democratic target last cycle and is again in 2020. Smith represents a district Trump won by 15 points. He didn’t have a serious challenge last fall, but he’s the only Republican left in New Jersey’s delegation. All of the Democratic members from the Garden State are backing the legislation.

The other Republicans signing on to the background check legislation  prevailed in relatively close races last fall. Democrats are targeting their seats again next cycle, while also hoping that King and Upton might retire.

Curbleo knows something about being a Democratic target. He lost last year to Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who talked on the campaign trail about her personal story of loss at the hands of gun violence.

In his op-ed with Costello, he pointed especially to suburban districts where during the 2018 midterms gun control was a salient campaign issue for the first time. “In many races, particularly in suburban districts and among critical voting blocs including women and young people, the NRA’s support was a liability for candidates,” the former lawmakers wrote on Feb. 24. “It doesn’t take much foresight to see — as the school-lockdown generation comes of voting age — that it’s only a matter of time before our laws catch up with the country’s sentiment on gun safety,” they added.Watch: What race ratings really mean and how we create them

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