President Donald Trump’s tentative embrace of a narrow background-checks bill is about to hit a towering hurdle: members of his own party.
The White House is signaling support for a bipartisan bill that would enhance reporting of violent criminals to the FBI’s background-checks database in order to stop them from buying firearms. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) is trying to round up support for it along with the White House — a formidable duo from a party that typically shuns any talk of stricter gun measures.
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But House conservatives are unwilling to sign on, unless the measure is coupled with so-called “concealed-carry” legislation backed by the National Rifle Association. Combining the two ideas would have the net effect of loosening gun controls.
The House in December passed a bill that yoked the pair of proposals. Before the vote, House GOP leaders promised conservatives that they would not decouple the background-checks bill from the concealed-carry language, according to four leadership and conservative sources familiar with the whip effort.
That sets up the possibility of a clash between House and Senate Republicans. Trump will likely have to decide how hard he wants to push for the standalone background-checks bill, at the risk of antagonizing his pro-gun base and GOP allies in the House.
If Senate Republicans don’t separate the two measures, the package is bound to run aground, since concealed-carry is a nonstarter for Democrats. It would allow gun owners with concealed-carry permits in their home states to take their weapons across state lines.
Senate Republicans have made no firm decisions on when or how to take up the background-checks bill. But Cornyn has made clear he would prefer to separate it from the concealed-carry language in order to preserve its chances of passing. On Wednesday morning, the Texan’s office reinforced that stance by circulating a Wall Street Journal editorial that implored the House to “let that [concealed-carry] provision die.”
Both Hill and White House sources told Politico that Senate passage of the background-checks bill, which would add penalties for federal agencies that don’t follow the reporting rules and encourage more states to comply, is a real possibility in the coming days.
If that happens, Speaker Paul Ryan will have to decide whether to even allow a vote on the House floor.
The House Freedom Caucus has sent a warning shot to leaders before the debate heats up.
The background-checks legislation “would allow bureaucrats and administrators to take away an individual’s Second Amendment liberties, and something that fundamental you’ve got to have a court make that decision to give due process to American citizens,” House Freedom Caucus co-founder Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said in an interview Tuesday.
A vote on the background checks bill alone would be “a big problem,” he added. “We were told when they combined them, [leadership] said — in the event that there is another terrible tragedy, and the Democrats in the Senate won’t go for the [concealed-carry proposal] … our leadership said, ‘No, we’ve got to keep these together.’”
The looming battle over an incremental bill — one that Democrats say doesn’t begin to address the nation’s epidemic of gun violence — is a reminder of the political realities of Washington. Polls show growing support for gun control measures, including 97-percent backing for universal background checks in a Quinnipiac University survey released Tuesday.
But the spate of mass shootings — from the 2012 mass murder of elementary school children in Newtown, Connecticut, to the massacre of 17 students and teachers at a Florida high school on Feb. 14 — has done little to move the gun debate in Congress. That’s because the two parties fundamentally disagree about the cause of the bloodshed: Democrats blame guns, Republicans blame individuals.
Trump is the wild card. The president was moved by news coverage of the aftermath of last week’s shooting, and doesn’t want to be seen as sitting on his hands. He surprised even some of his own staff Tuesday when he ordered Attorney General Jeff Sessions to craft a regulation banning “bump stocks,” which convert semi-automatic firearms into automatic weapons.
Republicans on Capitol Hill broadly support regulating bump stocks, which a shooter used to mow down nearly 60 people at a Las Vegas concert in October. The Wall Street Journal editorial suggested that the House GOP “throw in a ban” on bump stocks when it considers the bipartisan background-checks bill, an approach that would take effect more quickly than the bureaucratic process Trump directed Sessions to initiate.
But the White House has also said it’s open to gun control measures that go well beyond the ones that have been discussed in recent days. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders suggested Tuesday that increasing the legal age limit for purchase of an AR-15, the weapon used in last week’s Florida shooting, is on the table — as is a return of the assault weapons ban.
Those ideas will go nowhere with Republicans on Capitol Hill. And Democrats are already pressing the GOP to go further than the background-checks measure it’s struggling to coalesce behind.
“It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s a small step,” said the House Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York. “It shouldn’t be characterized in any way to a solution to the gun violence.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday urged Senate Republicans to “avoid making the same mistake as their House colleagues” and toss aside the concealed-carry sweetener. Schumer added to reporters that if Trump supports closing current background-checks loopholes, a step much further than the small-scale information-sharing plan the president has endorsed, the idea would have a “nexus of a chance” at passing.
Behind the scenes, top White House officials have been gauging whether Capitol Hill conservatives would support separating the concealed-carry language from the background-checks bill. They’ve also been reaching out to gun groups to see what could earn their support.
In the Senate, Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has yet to meet in person with Cornyn and his committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, to discuss a path forward for the legislation.
In the House, it’s not just Freedom Caucus members who want to keep the concealed-carry measure attached. Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), the sponsor of the House concealed-carry bill, told Politico in a statement that he hopes the Senate does not unlink the two.
As Republicans grasp for a workable strategy to pass even a modest bolstering of the background-checks system, their math problem in the Senate remains clear. When a similar concealed-carry plan came to a Senate vote in 2013, it received support from seven sitting Democrats. That would not be enough to reach the 60 votes needed for passage now, especially since one of those Democrats, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, has since renounced his backing.
Only six House Democrats supported the combined background-checks and concealed-carry legislation last year, with the rest arguing that it would infringe on individual states’ control of who can carry concealed weapons and create, essentially, a national gun license.
The background checks legislation would not have stopped Nikolas Cruz from purchasing the semi-automatic weapon he used to kill 17 students and teachers last week, and gun-control advocates say it doesn’t go nearly far enough.
“It’s certainly not proportional to the problem,” Peter Ambler, executive director of the gun-control group founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), said in an interview. “And it’s embarrassing for the president that he would present this tiny piece of legislation as something that would adequately respond to the shooting in [Florida] specifically, and the broader problem of gun violence.”