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House Judiciary panel to dive into gun debate upon return

Background checks, assault weapons ban, ‘red flag’ laws and more could be on the table

People hold candles at the end of the prayer vigil in Odessa, Texas, for victims of a mass shooting there Saturday in which seven people were killed. (Cengiz Yar/Getty Images)
People hold candles at the end of the prayer vigil in Odessa, Texas, for victims of a mass shooting there Saturday in which seven people were killed. (Cengiz Yar/Getty Images)

The House Judiciary Committee will meet next week to jump-start legislation addressing firearm ownership, an issue that has languished before Congress for more than two decades but faces new urgency in the wake of recent mass shootings that rattled the country.

Supporters of the legislation have scrambled over the summer recess to cobble together support and advance various proposals before the political will withers after recent shootings in Gilroy, California; Dayton, Ohio; and El Paso, Texas. A rampage in the West Texas community of Odessa over Labor Day weekend added to the concern. House Democrats have struggled with how far to push in the face of a GOP-controlled Senate and White House.

[Democrats line up three gun bills in early House Judiciary return]

The markup had initially been set for Wednesday, but the Judiciary Committee announced Friday it would be postponed until the week of Sept. 9, due to Hurricane Dorian. Five members of the panel represent Florida districts.

Committee members will ultimately vote on a package of proposals that would ban high-capacity magazines, establish a federal program for “red flag” laws that allow for temporary gun seizures, and expand bans on firearm ownership to people convicted of certain hate crime misdemeanors.

[McConnell: No votes on gun measures that Trump won’t sign]

Republicans have pushed back on the latest Democratic efforts. A Republican committee aide said they would prefer the committee advance another bill from ranking Republican Doug Collins of Georgia that would codify a federal response center for mass violence, toughen penalties for stealing from gun stores and authorize additional funds for federal gun prosecutions.

“We want to advance legislation that addresses the actual factors contributing to gun violence. If we’re going to help prevent mass tragedy, we need to keep guns off the black market,” said the Republican aide, who was not authorized to talk on the record about the issue. “We need to help local, state and federal law enforcement better coordinate responses to potential threats of mass violence.”

The markup will open up a broader debate over how guns are transferred in the United States and potential reinstatement of an assault weapon ban. The ban on the manufacture of certain semi-automatic weapons for civilian use and large-capacity magazines expired in 2004.

[Gun control legislation again faces political headwinds following three deadly shootings]

Progressive members of the House, such as Democratic Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, have pushed to enact a new assault weapons ban. Cicilline’s bill has amassed 205 co-sponsors, and the Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the issue Sept. 25, Chairman Jerrold Nadler said.

While the Democratic caucus sorts itself out on the assault weapons ban, Democratic leaders have pushed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to act on House-passed background check legislation.

Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told caucus members on a conference call that “we have to keep our foot on the gas on this issue. We must get [McConnell] to act. Cannot let it go away.”

Some form of background check legislation may end up finding White House support. Earlier in August, President Donald Trump told reporters that “we’re not looking at” an assault weapons ban, but may pursue an agreement on “very meaningful” background checks.

“I think it’s going to happen. There’s great, great support. But we’re looking at very, very meaningful background checks,” Trump told reporters.

Current federal law mandates background checks for purchases from licensed gun dealers, but advocates want to expand those to private transfers, online sales and sales at gun shows.

Senate prospects

Senate leaders have voiced some support for stiffer background check measures since the shootings, though specific proposals have run aground in the past.

McConnell told a Kentucky radio station that such measures would be “front and center” when the Senate returns next week, although he did not say which ones would be up for debate.

In 2017, then-GOP Whip John Cornyn of Texas championed a bill to penalize federal agencies that do not share their records with the FBI background check system. The language was enacted as part of omnibus spending legislation in 2018.

That’s factored into the behind-the-scenes talks over what Senate legislation on background checks may eventually look like, with Democrats such as Sen. Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut sounding cautiously optimistic.

“I’m sure there will be some people who say I’m naive to think that we’re going to end up getting a proposal through that will significantly expand background checks and be able to get 60 votes in the Senate,” Murphy said at a news conference in August. “I’m going to try.”

Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer pushed back on what he views as waffling from the president last week, and urged McConnell to act on the House bills.

“We’ve seen this movie before: President Trump, feeling public pressure in the immediate aftermath of a horrible shooting, talks about doing something meaningful to address gun violence,” Schumer said. “But inevitably, he backtracks in response to pressure from the NRA and the hard right.”

Senate Democrats and outside groups have started a campaign targeting individual senators. A gun control advocacy group, Everytown for Gun Safety, announced a $350,000 advertising campaign targeting McConnell, along with Republican Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida, who are either on the ballot next year or have backed additional gun control measures in the past.

[Giffords group launches pro-background check ads focused on Gardner, McConnell]

“You owe it to the millions of Americans whose lives were taken by gun violence, those millions of Americans who want you to listen and to do something,” Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio said in a speech Friday.

Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.

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