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Schumer puts gun control on Senate agenda

Announcement comes as House debates background checks bill

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., speaks during the news conference on gun violence prevention legislation on Thursday. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., is in the background.
Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., speaks during the news conference on gun violence prevention legislation on Thursday. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., is in the background. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Democrats on Thursday announced plans for a floor vote on legislation to expand background checks for private gun sales, which would force Republicans to choose between their party’s traditional gun rights positions and a policy that is broadly popular with the public.

Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer told reporters there will be hearings at the Senate Judiciary Committee and at least a procedural vote on a bill the House passed Thursday on a 227-203 bipartisan vote.

“HR 8 will be on the floor of the Senate and we will see where everybody stands,” the New York Democrat said at a press conference ahead of the House floor vote. “No more hopes and prayers, thoughts and prayers — a vote is what we need.”

The bill would require background checks of sales between private individuals, with the actual checks to be conducted through the federal system at licensed gun dealers — closing the so-called “gun show loophole” that Democrats say allows sales to felons, domestic abusers or others who are prohibited from owning firearms.

The gun control issue clearly falls along partisan lines in Congress. At least 10 Republicans would need to join Democrats to overcome any potential filibuster and go to an up-or-down vote, which would then require 50 votes to send the bill to President Joe Biden.

The House passed the same bill last Congress, but it died in the Republican-led Senate under then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Trump administration issued a veto threat because, it said, the “burdensome requirements in the bill do not sufficiently protect Second Amendment rights.”

Republicans who opposed the bill in the House say it would hinder the Second Amendment rights of lawful gun owners while not doing much to prevent unlawful gun purchases.

The Senate rejected a similar background checks proposal in 2013 after a school shooter killed 20 elementary students and six staff members in Sandy Hook, Conn., in 2012.

Connecticut Democratic Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, an outspoken proponent of gun control after the Sandy Hook shooting, said the political reality is “fundamentally different” now and that he’s had “a lot of Republican members come to me and express their willingness to take a new look.”

Around 90 percent of the public supports universal background checks, the political power of the anti-gun violence movement has grown, and the National Rifle Association is a shell of its former self, Murphy said.

“So I don’t think we should accept that there aren’t 60 votes in the Senate for universal background checks,” Murphy said. Democrats should be confident there are “Republicans who don’t want to litigate this issue election after election.”

Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, also a longtime proponent of gun control measures, said there were a majority of votes for expanded background checks in the Senate in 2013. When that proposal failed to get the 60 votes required for passage under an agreement reached prior to the vote, he said the cry from the public in the gallery was “shame.”

“If the Republicans vote against it, and there will be a vote, they will pay a price politically,” Blumenthal said. He added that House Democrats who ran on gun control policies showed that “people are not only supportive, they’re willing to vote based on this issue.”

A history of small steps and mass casualties

Congress last faced the question of whether it will pass any substantive gun control measures to curb mass shootings in August 2019, in the wake of three events in less than a week where gunmen opened fire on crowds in public settings, killing at least 34 people.

President Donald Trump addressed the nation and called for “real bipartisan solutions” to stop the attacks, but he stopped short of calling for legislation and did not call for votes on the House-passed background checks bill — despite his tweeting earlier in that day that “Republicans and Democrats must come together and get strong background checks.”

It’s almost exclusively Democrats who propose legislation to address gun violence. Democrats in 2016 staged a historic Senate filibuster and a sit-in on the House floor over the proliferation of mass shootings, including one at a club in Orlando, Fla., then the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Murphy led a nearly 15-hour filibuster that got Republican leaders to agree to hold votes on four gun-related amendments to a fiscal 2017 spending bill. The Senate rejected two Democrat-backed proposals on procedural votes, including one focused on background checks for gun purchases. Two Republican-backed gun measures countering the Democratic plans also were turned back.

Congress took limited action in 2018 after the deaths of 17 people at a Parkland, Fla., high school. Lawmakers provided $1 billion over 10 years in federal grant funding for school design and teacher training to bolster student safety — the only federal law to address mass shootings at schools.

Congress also strengthened compliance with the current background check system for firearm purchases. And the Trump administration banned bump stocks after a mass shooting in Las Vegas in October 2017 where the attacker used one to more rapidly fire a rifle.

On Thursday, Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga., whose son was killed in gun violence, sounded a note of optimism ahead of the vote.

“There’s so many of us survivors and family members who have lost their loved ones who have been waiting and waiting and waiting, and today we have the real possibility to make a difference and save lives,” McBath said.

The Pew Research Center found in October 2018 that 91 percent of Democrats and 79 percent of Republicans favor background checks for private gun sales and sales at gun shows.

Schumer said Thursday that Democrats would shine a spotlight on the issue, including during committee hearings.

And, he said, “maybe we’ll get the votes.”

“If we don’t, we’ll come together as a caucus and figure out how we’re going to get this done,” Schumer said. “Because we have to get this done.”

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