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New shootings plunge Biden, Congress into gun control debate

New shootings plunge Biden, Congress into gun control debate

by MORGAN CHALFANT | The Hill  |  Published on March 24, 2021

President Biden on Tuesday urged Congress to enact meaningful gun reforms after the second mass shooting in under a week, plunging Washington back into a familiar debate where lawmakers have stalemated in recent years.

Eight people in the Atlanta area and 10 people in Boulder, Colo., were killed in the most recent shootings, but there was little sign it would move the needle in Congress — even as political leaders who back gun reforms noted the United States is the only country in the world that continually suffers from mass shooting events.

There had been no mass shooting in a year as much of the country stayed home from work and school during the pandemic, a fact noted ruefully by former President Obama.

“A once-in-a-century pandemic cannot be the only thing that slows mass shootings in this country,” Obama, who failed to convince Congress to move forward on significant reforms after the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shooting in 2012, said in a statement.

“We shouldn’t have to choose between one type of tragedy and another. It’s time for leaders everywhere to listen to the American people when they say enough is enough — because this is a normal we can no longer afford,” he said.

Biden in remarks from the White House urged Congress to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and to close loopholes in background checks for firearms.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, called for a “moment of action” in addition to a moment of silence to address the “epidemic” of U.S. gun violence.

Republicans were muted in their comments, however, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) blasting Democratic calls to eliminate the filibuster in comments from the floor. McConnell did not use his floor time to address the shootings. Later, he condemned the shootings and said he was open to discussion on gun reform but acknowledged “deep-seated philosophical differences” between Democrats and Republicans on how to address gun violence.

During a previously scheduled Senate hearing on reducing gun violence Tuesday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) accused Democrats of “ridiculous theater” as they proposed universal background checks and other measures.

“Every time there is a shooting, we play this ridiculous theater where this committee gets together and proposes a bunch of laws that would do nothing to stop these murders,” Cruz said at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. He accused Democrats of an attempt to take away guns from law-abiding citizens.

Given the stark differences on display, a senior Obama administration official expressed skepticism that the recent shootings would influence the debate.

“After El Paso and Dayton, it’s very clear that nothing is going to sway congressional Republicans on gun control,” the former official said, referring to the 2019 mass shootings that occurred less than a day apart.

When asked during a later trip to Columbus, Ohio, whether he has the political capital to move forward gun measures, Biden answered that he hoped so and crossed his fingers.

“I don’t know. I haven’t done any counting yet,” Biden replied.

Congress passed a federal ban on assault weapons in 1994 when Biden was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but the law was written to sunset after 10 years. Since then, lawmakers have renewed calls for bans on assault weapons in the wake of mass shootings but have not gained traction.

A 2019 House bill that attracted 216 co-sponsors didn’t get a floor vote even though Democrats had a majority in the lower chamber.

Biden’s call for further reforms included a demand that the Senate “immediately pass” two bills approved by the House earlier this year that would expand background checks on gun sales.

“This is not and should not be a partisan issue; this is an American issue. It will save lives, American lives, and we have to act,” Biden said, noting the House bills had received some Republican support.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has promised quick action on the legislation, which would strengthen background checks and close the so-called Charleston loophole by extending the time federal investigators have to perform background checks from three days to 10 days.

Eight GOP lawmakers voted for the background check legislation that would require unlicensed or private sellers to conduct a check before they transfer a firearm. Two House Republicans backed the bill to close the Charleston loophole.

Democrats also think they have a chance to take advantage of a weakened National Rifle Association. The pro-gun advocacy group filed for bankruptcy and announced in January that it will reincorporate in Texas and leave New York. It’s also facing a civil suit from New York Attorney General Letitia James (D).

Democrats face hurdles passing any gun control measure in the 50-50 Senate, where they need at least 10 Republican votes to end the debate on legislation provided every Democrat votes in favor of the bills, unless a gun control measure is attached to a bill passed through budget reconciliation.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) told reporters Tuesday that he does not support the House-passed legislation expanding background checks, suggesting it should include a larger exemption for gun transfers between individuals who know one another.

“I come from a gun culture. And I’m a law-abiding gun owner, would do the right thing, you have to assume we will do the right thing,” Manchin said.

Manchin reiterated his support for a bill he previously offered with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) that would expand background checks to all commercial gun sales.

The White House is signaling that it will look for ways to act through executive action.

“We are considering a range of levers, including working through legislation, including executive actions to address, obviously, not just gun safety measures but violence in communities, so that has been under discussion and will continue to be under discussion,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters aboard Air Force One following Biden’s remarks.

Psaki said White House officials feel they need to work on “multiple channels” at once.

The push for new gun measures may invigorate calls to do away with or reform the legislative filibuster that requires 60 votes to end debate on most legislation. Biden recently said he supported returning to the “talking filibuster” in which senators need to physically be on the floor talking in order to block legislation.

“Americans made up their mind on background checks. If the filibuster is the only thing that stops a wildly popular proposal from becoming law, then, it’s certainly — it should be part of the conversation as to why the rules need to change,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told reporters.

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