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Democrats divided on gun control strategy

Democrats divided on gun control strategy

by ALEXANDER BOLTON | The Hill  |  Published on March 25, 2021

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) needs to unify his caucus on gun control legislation, a top Democratic priority, but he already faces various problems.

Centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) says a background-checks bill passed by the House goes too far while other colleagues, such as Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.), are pushing for an assault weapons ban and restrictions on high-capacity magazines, controversial proposals that would be tough for moderates to support.

Any gun control measure would need 10 Republican votes to pass, another serious obstacle to getting something done.

Gun-control legislation would not be eligible for the special budgetary pathway known as reconciliation and therefore would need 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. Democrats control only 50 seats and are not even assured of keeping their entire caucus unified.

Even after two mass shootings in Boulder and Atlanta, there’s strong resistance among Republican senators to expanding background-check requirements for gun sales and transfers.

Republicans such as Sen. John Cornyn (Texas) say they are willing to require background checks for all commercial gun transactions, but that falls well short of what most Democrats want to do.

Democrats say Republican calls to limit background checks to “commercial” sales will leave too many transactions uncovered.

Manchin said Tuesday he does not support a bill passed by the House to expand background checks to include all individuals who would purchase or transfer firearms. He wants an exemption for transfers between friends and family.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) on Wednesday said he’s also concerned about the House bill’s requirement on background checks for transfers or sales between family members.

Manchin says he will resume negotiations with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) on their joint proposal unveiled in 2013 that would require background checks for guns sold over the Internet or at gun shows but exempt sales and transfers between friends and family.

One emerging concern for Democrats is that Manchin says he wants to focus on commercial sales.

Manchin said Wednesday “it’s long past due” to implement what he called “common sense” reform.

“Commercial background checks is the most, I think, reasonable approach,” he said. “I’ve always said that.”

Manchin said he will be speaking with his old partner, Toomey, and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a leading advocate for stricter gun-control laws.

Several other Republican senators have expressed willingness to consider expanded background-check requirements, including Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Todd Young (R-Ind.).

“I have long been a supporter of the Manchin-Toomey proposal, without infringing on the rights of law-abiding Americans, to change and close some of the loopholes in the background checks so that they apply to online sales for example,” Collins told reporters Monday.

But the Maine moderate didn’t seem enthusiastic about the House-passed bill.

“My understanding is that it’s very, very broad,” she said.

Schumer says he’s not going to pick and choose right now what the Senate should do but instead will meet with colleagues, including Murphy, to chart a path forward.

“We have to figure out the best way to get the most done,” he said. “I’m not going to pick which of them. The background checks bill passed the House, it passed it overwhelmingly. It’s supported by 90 percent of Americans, 80 percent of gun owners.

“That is not to say we wouldn’t look at other things as well,” he said.

The House background checks bill passed 227 to 203.

Murphy said Wednesday that expanding background checks will be the starting point of the negotiations.

“Background checks has the benefit of being the most politically popular and practical from a policy standpoint so I think it makes sense to start with fixing the background checks system and that involves expanding [it],” he said.

But he raised concerns about limiting background checks to commercial transactions and said he wants to go further than the Manchin-Toomey amendment from 2013, which exempted sales and transfers between family and friends.

“It’s hard to define what a commercial sale is,” Murphy said. “If it’s selling to a stranger but that didn’t occur online or at a gun show, is that a commercial sale?”

He said a better option would be to create “very clear carveout of family members.”

He noted that Manchin and Toomey negotiated with the National Rifle Association while crafting their scaled-down proposal to expand background checks nearly eight years ago in the hope that the gun-owners’ rights group would back the amendment, which it never did.

The NRA ultimately opposed Manchin-Toomey, even though it was able to make several key changes to it.

“There’s a lot that’s happened since then,” Murphy said. “We’ve made other improvements to the background check system since then that make Manchin-Toomey pretty irrelevant.”

There are also divisions within the Democratic caucus over more far-reaching proposals, such as a ban on assault-style weapons favored by Feinstein.

The senior California senator said during the Judiciary Committee’s hearing on the mass shooting in Boulder than she wants the committee to consider her legislation.

“I really hope we can do something about it. I have 35 cosponsors on a renewed assault weapons ban that is in this committee. And I would hope we can hold a hearing and perhaps consider that legislation,” she told Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

But putting an assault weapons ban on the floor would be a tough vote for moderate Democrats in Republican-leaning and swing states.

“I’m not crazy about that,” said Tester, who represents a state that former President Donald Trump carried by 16 points in November.

The Great Falls Tribune reported in 2018 that Montana was the second-most dependent state on the firearms industry, with more than 30 firearms industry jobs for every 10,000 residents.

Tester objected to the lack of an exemption for family members in the House-passed background checks bill.

“I haven’t really looked at it. Traditionally I support background checks. I don’t think that bill has [an exemption for] passing it down to your kids. That’s a problem,” he said.

Other Democrats want votes on bills banning assault-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines even if those proposals have little chance of passing the Senate.

“I would be in favor of considering a couple of floor votes, at least I would. Because you have to make some of these issues more apparent to people,” said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who supports the assault weapons ban.

“The last time we had any real debate and voting on gun policy was at this time in roughly 2013. That’s eight years. We’re long overdue,” he said. “I think it’s important to have the vote.”

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