Congress Stalled On Bills To Tighten Gun Background Check System

Feb 27, 2018
Originally published on February 27, 2018 6:01 pm

Congress is under intense pressure to pass legislation to curb gun violence, but lawmakers are deeply split over how far to go in limiting access to guns.

Lawmakers from both parties say they want to take action to prevent another deadly attack like the Feb. 14 shooting at a Florida high school that killed 17 people. Disagreements over gun control measures go beyond a clear partisan split between Democrats and Republicans, leaving even the most popular bipartisan proposal stalled in Congress.

Senate leaders had hoped to fast-track a bill to improve the national background check system and send it to the House for quick consideration. But conservative Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, placed a hold on the bill, preventing speedy passage. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters Tuesday that he does not plan to take up any gun measures until the Senate acts first.

"We're waiting to see what the Senate can do," Ryan said at a weekly press conference. "We'll find out what the Senate can do, and we'll address that then."

Ryan said he is deeply disturbed by the shooting and he wants Congress to delve into failures in the existing law enforcement and background check systems that happened in the lead-up to the Florida shooting.

Many Republicans oppose any limits on gun rights for most people. Ryan said the House is focused instead on preventing criminals and people with a history of mental illness from accessing deadly firearms.

"We do know that there are gaps in the background system that need to be plugged," Ryan said. "We shouldn't be banning guns for law-abiding citizens, we should be focusing on making sure that citizens who shouldn't have guns in the first place don't get them."

The Senate bill would address some of those concerns with narrow changes to how local, state and federal law enforcement agencies share information. It would make it easier for the FBI and local police to update the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Conservatives like Lee say that the Senate bill doesn't address the core problem with the background check system and that they worry it would deny gun owners their right to due process. Lee and Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and John Kennedy, R-La., sent a letter to Senate leaders opposing that bill, saying they worry it "might lead to an increase in the likelihood of abuse and administrative error."

The Senate bill has also drawn criticism from some Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who say the bill doesn't go far enough. Schumer is calling on Congress to pass new, broader background checks.

"Not just a little something here, a little something there," Schumer said Tuesday in a speech on the Senate floor. "But comprehensive background checks are supported overwhelmingly by the American people."

Schumer is also co-sponsor of the narrower Senate bill, which was written in part by Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate.

Cornyn has complained that the infighting over the narrow bill could be standing in the way of the best opportunity Congress has to pass a gun bill this week.

"This is our chance to show the nation that we refuse to accept shootings at schools and churches as the new normal," Cornyn said Tuesday. "If our attitude is 'I want everything on my list or nothing,' we're going to end up with nothing."

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The debate in Washington over what to do about mass shootings is following a familiar pattern. Democrats and Republicans both say they want to end gun violence, but they disagree on how to do that. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are hoping to vote on a series of narrow fixes to the background check system that's already in place for most gun purchases.

NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell joins us to talk about where that debate stands now. Hi, Kelsey.


SHAPIRO: Senate leaders had said they wanted a vote this week on changes to the national background check system. Are they still on track to do that?

SNELL: It really doesn't look like it right now. Senator John Cornyn - he's a No. 2 Republican in the Senate from Texas - he wrote this new changes to the background check system and says he's really hoping to get there. And he made a long, impassioned speech on the Senate floor today asking people to come up for a vote for this. Here's what he said.


JOHN CORNYN: If our attitude is I want everything on my list or nothing, we're going to end up with nothing.

SNELL: And that's a pretty stark warning. The problem isn't just a divide between Democrats and Republicans. This issue of guns really splits the parties in a lot of different ways. And it's fairly clear that the bill could pass if the Senate, you know, allowed it to come up. But there are a lot of concerns that Democrats might push for votes on broader controls like an assault weapons ban or universal background checks. And Republicans want to enforce existing laws. They want to focus on that. And, you know, this is something we've seen a lot in the past few months. It's the same dynamic as in DACA where Democrats and Republicans agree on a goal but they can't agree on the legislation to reach that goal, so it makes it really hard for them to get to a vote.

SHAPIRO: DACA, the protections for young immigrants.

SNELL: Right.

SHAPIRO: One difference with previous gun violence debates is that now you have these students from the high school where the shooting took place.

SNELL: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Have their voices had an impact on lawmakers?

SNELL: Absolutely. We're hearing from Republicans in particular saying, you know, that they were moved by this in a way that we didn't hear them saying that before. And survivors were in the Capitol today. They visited with House Speaker Paul Ryan and they met with other legislators. But Ryan was among those who said he was deeply affected by hearing the stories on TV. But he also said what I'm hearing from other Republicans, which is they don't want to pass laws that would restrict guns from most people. Here's what Ryan said at a press conference.


PAUL RYAN: Of course we want to listen to these kids. But we also want to make sure that we protect people's due process rights and legal constitutional rights while making sure that people who should not get guns don't get them.

SNELL: And that brings us back to the same debate that's been plaguing Congress for years. There's virtually no agreement on a single bill that can really address the complicated issue that is mass shootings.

SHAPIRO: So where does it go from here in that case?

SNELL: Yeah. Ryan says the ball's in the Senate's court. The Senate Republicans say it's up to Democrats to agree with them. Democrats say they can support this narrow background check bill, and they're blaming conservatives who are blocking the bill over what they're calling due process issues. So basically it's kind of a circular firing squad of people saying it's somebody else's responsibility to get moving on this. One option would be for all 100 senators to agree to pass the bill without ever actually voting on it. They would just voice vote it and say, we have passed changes to the background checks, and send it to the House for another vote. Another option would be for Democrats and Republicans to agree on a limited number of amendments.

All of this is a big ask. It's a short period of time, and Congress lives slowly even on issues where there's broad agreement. And guns really aren't one of those areas. Congress has not prepared for a gun debate either. They planned to spend this time approving nominations and moving on to banking, but the shooting forced their hand to start talking about guns again.

SHAPIRO: NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell, thank you.

SNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.