WASHINGTON ― Congress, famously incapable of passing gun control legislation, may finally be ready to do something.
It won’t be much ― if it happens at all ― but the current thinking among Republicans on Capitol Hill is that if lawmakers once again fail to do anything to tighten gun laws, there could be a voter backlash that ushers in a Democratic majority that would pass an even more restrictive bill.
The idea was summed up by conservative Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) on Twitter on Monday: “Most prevalent theme so far in Congress: ‘We have to do this bad idea so that we don’t end up with a worse idea.’”
When HuffPost asked Davidson about that tweet on Tuesday, he said it wasn’t unique to guns or just this week in Congress, but he granted that many Republicans were making that argument in support of the current Fix NICS bill. That legislation, co-sponsored by Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), would reinforce existing background check laws to provide the FBI with more information about the criminal histories of those seeking a gun. (Agencies often fail to report criminal records to NICS, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.)
The extremely modest proposal has already passed the House. But to get the bill out of the lower chamber, GOP leaders made a deal with more-conservative members to couple it with another measure allowing citizens with a concealed carry permit in one state to use that permit in another state ― even if the concealed carry law is different in the second state.
Both provisions appear to be non-starters with Senate Democrats, and Senate Republicans appear open to stripping the concealed carry portion and passing a clean Fix NICS bill. But Democrats also feel that a bill that simply reinforces laws already on the books would do little to address the problem of gun violence and would just give Republicans political cover. They want other changes, like universal background checks, which would be more difficult to pass in either chamber of Congress despite overwhelming public support.
Whichever route the Senate takes ― passing a limited Fix NICS bill, something larger or nothing at all ― there are real questions about what the House would do next. Conservative members say GOP leaders promised that the House would not vote on a background check bill without the concealed carry provisions. And Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said Tuesday that a decision by the Senate to send back the Fix NICS bill without the concealed carry part shouldn’t change the commitments that Republican leaders made.
“Why should that change their promise?” Jordan asked.
But Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) sounded less than resolute when asked about his commitment on Tuesday.
“We obviously think the Senate should take our whole bill,” Ryan told reporters, “but if the Senate cannot do that, then we’ll discuss and cross that bridge when we get to it.”
While that sort of noncommittal statement will certainly alarm conservatives, it will also alarm Democrats and those Republicans who are actually trying to pass a bill.
Senate leaders appear close to some sort of agreement that would allow their members to vote on some amendments, though perhaps not all. At that point, it would be up to senators to decide what the gun package coming out of the Senate looks like ― and then it would depend on Speaker Ryan giving that legislation a vote in the House.
Republicans who are supportive of more gun restrictions say they expect any bill that makes it to President Donald Trump’s desk would have needed the backing of a significant number of Democrats. And the mood in the Capitol ― the one where Republicans fear inaction could ultimately lead to even tighter laws ― could bring along enough Republicans as well to give Ryan cover to bring up a revised bill in the House.
Already Republicans are providing quotes that would have once been unthinkable.
When Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) was asked about the political implications of gun control, he said that he thought it would hurt Republicans nationally, but that the issue was different for each individual member.
“Again, I come from a part of the country where, again, the only ones with guns are cops and bad guys,” King said.