Lawmakers return to Washington next week with both sides vowing a robust debate on gun reform following a pair of deadly mass shootings in Texas and another in Ohio.
But the discussion promised by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is a far cry from assured action, and the GOP leader’s long history opposing tougher firearm laws has left many Democrats skeptical that any meaningful reforms will move through the Republican-controlled Senate.
In either case, experts say, the outcome could have far-reaching effects on the 2020 elections, as liberal gun control advocates warn of a voter backlash if Congress sits idle and conservative gun rights proponents caution against any new restrictions on the Second Amendment.
The debate will put a squeeze on McConnell as he seeks to defend his Senate majority.
Inaction could energize progressives in crucial swing states while also playing into the Democrats’ strategy of attacking McConnell’s “Grim Reaper” persona — painting him as a figure intent on blocking any legislative progress.
Moving gun reform legislation, however, would infuriate the powerful gun lobby and could alienate conservatives in battleground districts across the country.
Whatever the outcome, the debate is likely to play an outsize role in races for the House, where Democrats are hoping to make gun violence prevention a major campaign issue. The political consequences could be especially profound in the suburbs, where Republican campaign operatives are starting to sound early warnings against doing nothing.
“A lot of suburban voters, especially college-educated women, don’t understand why we can’t do something in the face of the obvious national problem of gun violence,” said Whit Ayres, a Washington-based GOP pollster who counts Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) among his clients.
“It doesn’t look good to have an obvious national problem when our national legislature is essentially silent,” Ayers said.
For decades, gun reform was considered the third rail of national politics; even Democrats largely shied away from it when they last held power in Congress almost 10 years ago. But a long and seemingly endless string of mass shootings in recent years has outraged the public, energized gun reformers and put more pressure on lawmakers to act.
In the 2018 midterms, a number of moderate House Democrats — including Virginia’s Abigail Spanberger, Georgia’s Lucy McBath and South Carolina’s Joe Cunningham — won races in tough districts while endorsing tougher gun laws. It’s a dynamic that advocates are highlighting heading into 2020.
“This isn’t an issue that calls for speculation,” said Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), who represents Parkland, where 17 students were killed last year in a high school shooting.
If McConnell “chooses to run out the clock, he does so at his own peril, his own political peril. He’s going to cost himself seats,” Deutch added. “And the longer he waits, the more likely it is that gun safety will be a driving issue in the 2020 Senate races.”
That’s certainly the case in Arizona, where appointed GOP Sen. Martha McSally is facing a tough challenge from Democrat Mark Kelly, the husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.), who nearly lost her life in a 2011 mass shooting in Tucson. A poll published Thursday by OH Predictive Insights revealed that 54 percent of likely Arizona voters believe laws concerning the sale and ownership of guns need to be stricter — a 6 percentage point increase from May.
Nationwide, support for gun reform polls even higher, especially on individual provisions such as universal background checks, which consistently tops 90 percent. Yet those surveys have not translated into action on Capitol Hill, where most Republicans remain dead set against tougher gun laws, even in the weeks following mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, that left 31 people dead.
“With universal background you’re attacking law-abiding citizens,” Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), a co-chairman of the moderate Problem Solvers Caucus, told CNN on Aug. 20.
Reed said he’s getting an earful from constituents in his rural district in western New York who are voicing their opposition to tougher laws.
“People come up, stop me on the street,” he said.
This weekend’s shooting in Odessa, Texas, is likely to reinvigorate gun control activists but is unlikely to fundamentally shift the discussion.
Seven people were killed and another 22 were injured in the mass shooting. No motive is known so far.
Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, an election handicapper based at the University of Virginia, said he’s seen little evidence that the recent mass shootings have shifted the gun debate.
“There are big majorities for certain reforms, but a much louder minority of gun rights supporters who have a loud voice in the GOP. I’m not convinced that this is a major voting issue for a lot of voters beyond some gun rights supporters,” Kondik said in an email sent before the Odessa shooting. “Yes, the Democrats did do well in suburban areas last year, but Trump himself probably was more a part of that than guns overall.”
In the absence of sustained pressure on Republicans from their core supporters, many Democrats are doubtful that McConnell will move any meaningful reforms through the Senate this year.
“I don’t have any confidence that the Senate will do anything remotely related to guns,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said by phone. “They are a wholly owned subsidiary of the NRA.”
For Republicans, voting against the National Rifle Association (NRA) could carry heavy political consequences in 2020 or beyond. While the NRA has seen a decline in membership, allegations of misspending and a power struggle among its top ranks, it still has the ear of the president.
House Democrats, who passed a background checks bill in February, are looking to put the issue front and center at a Judiciary Committee markup next week when the panel will vote on three bills: one to ban large-capacity magazines, another that would bar people convicted of misdemeanor hate crimes from owning a weapon; and a third supporting states that pass «red flag» laws, which allow family members to petition courts to remove guns from people deemed a threat.
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee and Democratic leadership team, said Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) could then package the bills and move them quickly to the floor or hold a series of votes on individual bills.
Either way, the goal would be the same: to put added pressure on McConnell, the Senate and Trump.
So far, it’s unclear if the president is feeling the heat. After the back-to-back shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Trump said there was a need for “strong background checks” on gun purchases but then reversed himself by saying the focus should be on mental health and violent video games. Yet Trump continues to encourage senators to negotiate a deal on gun reforms.
The president’s waffling has created enormous uncertainty around the issue as lawmakers prepare to return to Washington after a six-week recess, one that’s largely been dominated by Trump.
“All presidents have internal debates; not all presidents articulate these internal debates publicly,” said former Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), a background checks advocate who lost his suburban seat to a Democrat in last year’s blue-wave election.
«I would like the president to exert influence in the Senate to bring [a background check] bill to the floor,» he added.
Chris Mills Rodrigo contributed.