• Michael McAuliff

Can Congress Pass A Gun Bill?

Congress had the Memorial Day week off to think about it, and the House is about to push ahead with two gun bills, but can Congress actually pass a new gun law to curb the never-ending stream of gun violence?

The short answer is maybe.


The short-plus answer is that something may pass, but it's unlikely to be a major step of any kind.


The first clue comes from the man leading talks on behalf of Republicans, Texas Sen. John Cornyn.


Texans aren't exactly noted for their pro-gun control activism, but Cornyn can at least point to his sponsorship of a bill after the horrifying Sutherland Springs church shooting that claimed 26 lives. The shooter was dishonorably discharged from the Air Force over his domestic abuse, but was able to get his murder weapons because the Air Force did not forward his disqualifying records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System that might have blocked his purchase. Cornyn sponsored a bill to make sure such records reached the system, and it passed in 2018.


Still, Cornyn said he wasn't rushing into anything after the Senate came into session Monday afternoon.


Here's some: "Everyone is asking the question, the logical question, how do we stop these sorts of things from happening again? Well, I think that's the right question. That's the question that's been on my mind and dominating conversations with my colleagues the last couple of weeks. Now, this is a big, diverse country -- a lot of differences regionally, culturally, in life, and each of us have ideas about what would work best. That's the genius of our federal system... because one size fits all is not necessarily always the right solution. But those of us who work here the Senate know this is not just about our goals or ideals. It's about what was once called the art of the possible. Perfect bills exist only in our imagination. We have to be realistic about what can pass both chambers of Congress and get the president's signature. And we know it's not easy by design."


And he added more caveats: "Over the last week and a half, I've been talking particularly with Sen. Murphy, Sen. Tillis, Sen. Sinema, but literally with everybody I can reach on the phone or get through text message to see if there's some package of mental health and safety legislation that addresses some of the factors that might have prevented the recent shootings... I want to be clear though. We're not talking about restricting the rights of current law-abiding gun owners or citizens. This is a constitutional right, as much as that may go against the grain of some of our colleagues."


Cornyn said he was interested in addressing the mental health of America's children as a way of addressing mass shooting, and in beefing up security at schools. He didn't get into any details on the sort of federal program would be massive enough to deal with the mental health of the entire nation's juvenile population of its many thousands of school buildings.


Some things that were off the table included ideas that had been popular (with lawmakers -- they're still popular with the public) in the past, including banning assault-style weapons and ammo and boosting the background check system.


"We're not talking about banning a category of weapons across the board, a ban for certain high-capacity magazines, or changing the background check system by adding additional disqualifying items," Cornyn said. "If we're actually serious about finding common ground and building consensus, those sorts of things will stand no chance of passing the Senate."


Still, the Democratic-controlled House intends to try and push the Senate by passing two measures this week that most Americans favor.


One is Rep. Jerry Nadler's Protecting Our Kids Act, which would raise the age for buying semi-automatics to 21, crackdown on making and owning ghost guns, target straw purchasers, and require secure storage of weapons.


The other is Rep. Lucy McBath's Federal Extreme Risk Protection Order Act. McBath's bill would create a nationwide red flag law designed to keep weapons out of the hands of people suffering through the sorts of mental and emotional crises when there are apt to harm themselves or others. The bill would "establish procedures for obtaining an order in federal court to temporarily prohibit access to firearms when people are shown to be a danger to themselves or others, and such an order is necessary to prevent that danger," according to the report explaining the legislation.


Although many Republicans in the Senate have proclaimed that they are for keeping guns out of the hands of people who are mentally unstable, many have also already said that such things should be left to states.


That makes the likelihood of any House bill passing the Senate extremely slim.


Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has vowed to force Republicans to vote on gun bills to at least put them on the record, and has already put the House-passed bills on background checks and an assault weapons ban on the calendar. Exactly what will get votes remains murky while there's hope of some bipartisan step.


Whatever the Senate does, the House will again be on the record with measures that are broadly supported by the public.


While McBath's bill might worry some civil libertarians, Nadler's measure would do things most

Americans think are common sense, but probably won't get GOP support when Second Amendment fundamentalism is still such a driving force in the party.


One thing we can count on, though, is Democrats pointing out in the campaign season that such laws will stand no chance if the GOP retakes the House in the fall, and many people expect.