Congress struggles to adapt to Trump's shift on guns

2018-03-02 12:30
Handguns are displayed at a trade show in Las Vegas. (John Locher, AP, file)

Handguns are displayed at a trade show in Las Vegas. (John Locher, AP, file)

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Washington - Action on gun legislation has skidded to a halt in Congress - not for a lack of bipartisan proposals, but because US President Donald Trump's stunning shift on gun policy left some in his party confused, irritated and scrambling to figure out what to do next.

Republicans squirmed over Trump's call for stricter gun laws after the assault on a Florida high school, while Democrats seized on the opening to reach beyond a modest measure gaining traction in Congress.

They unveiled a more ambitious priority list, with expanded background checks and even a politically risky ban on assault weapons.

READ: School shooting puts pressure on Florida lawmakers to act

Without a clear path forward for any legislation, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell shelved the gun debate, for now, saying the Senate would turn next week to other measures.

McConnell had been preparing to push ahead with an incremental proposal from Senators John Cornyn and Chris Murphy, but even that measure faced some GOP opposition.

"I'm hoping there's a way forward," he told reporters.

Pressure

Congress is under pressure to act after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in February that left 17 dead.

Lawmakers had been making incremental progress on a bill to boost participation in the existing federal background check bill.

READ: Survivors of deadly school shooting lash out at Trump

But after Trump's pronouncements this week, that legislation hardly mattered. Trump panned the bipartisan bill as little more than a building block for the "beautiful" and "comprehensive" legislation he envisioned would protect Americans from mass shootings.

"Many ideas, some good & some not so good," Trump tweeted on Thursday, singling out background checks. "After many years, a bill should emerge."

Trump suggested - but did not declare - his support for a more sweeping background check bill that would require review of firearm purchases online and at gun shows.

READ: Worst mass shootings in the modern United States

The measure, from Senators Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, and Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, has found new momentum since it was first introduced after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut that left 20 children dead.

The president reached out to Toomey on Thursday, after the senator endured the brunt of Trump's public criticism of lawmakers as "afraid" of the National Rifle Association, and encouraged him to pursue the bill.

The senator told Trump his backing would be needed to build support. "He wants to be helpful," Toomey said.

Amid the shifting debate, the president convened yet another meeting on school safety, this time with school shooting survivors and family members of victims, and the White House considered releasing the president's list of legislative priorities.

Controversial ideas

Beyond background checks, the president wants to use an executive order to bar the use of bump stock devices that enable guns to fire like automatic weapons.

And he backs more controversial ideas, including increasing the minimum age for the purchase of assault weapons from 18 to 21, which is opposed by the NRA, and arming certain teachers, which the gun lobby supports.

The NRA called the bulk of the proposals discussed at the White House this week "bad policy" that would not keep people safe.

Lawmakers, though, were frustrated by Trump's comments. Cornyn insisted his bill with Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, was "our best and only option" for passage.

The Texas Republican dismissed Wednesday's "brainstorming" session at the White House - calling it "Legislating 101" - and said he was not waiting for the president to produce a plan.

"Obviously, he's important," Cornyn said about Trump. "But it's our job to write the legislation and he either vetoes it or he signs it."

Democrats wasted no time quickly outlining their top three priorities: Background checks, the ability to take guns away from those who pose a "clear danger", and at least a debate on banning assault weapons like the AR-15 used at the Florida high school.

"Not every Democrat will agree with every piece, but my caucus is prepared to provide a very large number of votes to get these passed," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat from New York. "But we can't do it alone."

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