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Congress faces old gun debate with new pressure to act

Lawmakers returned to Washington amidst a new atmosphere

by Leigh Ann Caldwell and Frank Thorp V /  / Updated 
Image: AR-15 rifles on display at gun show
AR-15 rifles are displayed for sale at the Guntoberfest gun show in Oaks, Pennsylvania.Joshua Roberts / Reuters

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WASHINGTON — Congress continued to grapple with how to move forward on the issue of gun violence after returning to Washington this week for the first time since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Members have been greeted with a new twist to an old debate as students from the high school where 17 people were shot and killed on Valentine's Day fanned out across the Capitol to lobby Congress to enact new gun control legislation.

Some of those students, who have become public figureheads for a national student movement on gun control, have been meeting with congressional leaders, including GOP House Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who was shot during a baseball practice last year.

Lawmakers began the week by bringing forth a mix of proposals that have failed to pass in the past, such as legislation to strengthen background checks, and new ideas, like raising the age limit to buy semi-automatic weapons.

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But, so far, the push to pass any of them is off to a rocky start, and House Speaker Paul Ryan indicated on Tuesday that he has no plans to take up any measures that could be construed as infringing on gun rights.

"We want to listen to these kids, but we also want to make sure that we protect people’s due process rights and legal constitution rights while making sure that people who should not get guns don’t get them," Ryan told reporters Tuesday morning.

Ryan pointed to the narrow measure the House passed late last year that would shore up the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. That bill would also ease gun regulation by allowing people with concealed weapons to carry them across state lines. Both components are supported by the National Rifle Association.

In the Senate, legislation to tighten up background checks could come up as early as this week.

"There are bipartisan differences about how to address this issue that have continually snagged every effort. So what Senator Cornyn has suggested is that we take something we all agree on, not in any way claiming it's a panacea, but at least show some progress toward dealing with one element of the problem," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday.

The NICS bill, also known as Fix NICS, however incremental, was agreed to between Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, after the Texas church shooting last fall. It encourages states and federal agencies to ensure background check information is uploaded into the national database.

But even that legislation, known as "Fix NICS," is already being bogged down before it reaches the Senate floor.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, has objected to it, citing concerns about due process. And Democrats, attempting to ride the momentum and demands from their base, want a bill that goes further.

"We want a full debate, not just on 'Fix NICS' but on legislation that will really do the job," Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said.

Democrats have decided to push for expanded background checks, similar to legislation proposed by Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Penn., and Joe Manchin, D-W.V., in 2013 after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

That bill gained the support of 56 senators, four short needed for passage.

Toomey, however, told reporters Tuesday that he has spoken to "several" Republican senators who voted against it in 2013 and are open to supporting the legislation now.

"Where they will end up, I do not know," Toomey cautioned.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said that regardless of Schumer’s desire for more, he would support the Fix NICS bill.

“It’s a very modest step, a baby step, when we need giant strides," he said. "But every measure that helps advance gun violence prevention I would support.”

Other senators have a variety of other ideas.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said he’s going to introduce legislation with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that would raise the minimum age to buy a semi-automatic weapon to 21.

“The president has said that he supports that, there's a lot of support, it seems, for that, so we ought to give that a vote for sure,” Flake said.

Of Trump’s idea to arm teachers with guns, Flake said, “I just don't think that's a serious proposal, I just don't.”

And Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has reintroduced her legislation, which failed in the Senate with only 52 votes two years ago, that would prohibit people on the "No Fly" watch list from purchasing a gun.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said he supports just having a debate.

"What I hope we would do on the gun issue is put a bill on the floor. I would start with the background check bill and let that bill be fully amended," Blunt said. "I personally think that’s better than saying well we don’t want to bring a raucous debate on the floor. Let’s get this on the floor and see what the votes are."

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