Politics

The Options Congress Has for Gun Control

A man holds a young boy's hand, walking next to a girl and a woman who appears to be wiping her face with a tissue.
A victim’s family walks out of the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 25, 2022. Chandan Khanna/Getty Images

The killing of 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday has been met in Congress not with grim determination to right wrongs but with the feeling, already, of defeat.

“I know this is a slim prospect,” ​​Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday when floating the idea of a bipartisan gun-control bill. “Very slim, all too slim. We’ve been burned so many times before.”

Democrats in the Senate are currently mired in a debate over whether to try to hash out a bipartisan bill—one that would likely take time to draft and contain compromises frustrating to gun control advocates—or vote on two existing gun bills dealing with background checks for firearm purchases that have already been passed by the House. That latter option would almost certainly end in defeat with a Republican filibuster—bringing it to a vote would merely be for accountability. “I believe that accountability votes are important, Schumer said. “But sadly, this isn’t a case of the American people not knowing where their senators stand. They know.”

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The shooting in Uvalde comes almost a decade after 20 elementary school students were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The connections between the two shootings are unavoidable, given the scale of the tragedy and the ages of the victims. It’s hard not to notice that since Sandy Hook, there has been no substantial federal gun control legislation.

For a moment, though, it seemed as if there could be. In 2013, senators Joe Manchin and Patrick Toomey hammered out a background check bill they hoped would harness the horror lawmakers felt. Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, and Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, thought they had found a workable compromise: the bill required background checks on all commercial sales of firearms, but it also allowed people to sell their guns to family and friends without needing one. A majority of senators supported the bill.

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But a majority wasn’t enough. Even though the bill attempted to appease the National Rifle Association with certain loosened restrictions, the NRA still came out against it. According to the Washington Post, Republicans began to worry that as conversations about other cultural issues shifted nationally, their base would resent them for relenting on another major Republican identity issue. That April, just four months after the shooting, the bill came six votes short of the 60 it needed to defeat the filibuster. Four Republicans voted for the bill; five Democrats voted against it (one for procedural reasons). Congress also rejected a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity gun magazines.

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“Criminals do not submit to background checks now,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican, said at the time. “They will not submit to expanded background checks.”

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Manchin-Toomey remains the closest Congress has come to passing major bipartisan gun control legislation. (Manchin has pushed a version of Manchin-Toomey multiple times since its failure in 2013.) And that’s true despite bursts of legislative activity after nearly every major mass shooting in the past decade.

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To name some of them:

After the killing of nine Black worshipers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015,  Democrats failed to bring to a vote a bill that would have increased the waiting time required for background checks to be completed from three to 10 days. (Firearms dealers can sell to people after the waiting period if the background check hasn’t been completed; this has been called the “Charleston loophole,” as the gunman in that shooting exploited it. A bill to close the Charleston loophole, passed in the House last year, is one of the bills doomed to fail in the senate if brought to a vote.)

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After the killing of 14 in San Bernardino, California, in 2015, the Senate again rejected two background check proposals by Democrats.

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After the killing of 49 at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in 2016, the senate rejected four gun measures that would have dealt with background check loopholes and barred people from the federal terrorism watch list from buying firearms.

After the killing of 58 at a music festival in Las Vegas in 2017, Congress failed to gain traction on a bump stock ban. (President Donald Trump, under a Justice Department rule, banned them in 2019.)

After the killing of 14 students and three staff members in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, Democrats again put forward a number of gun control bills, but Republicans in control of both the House and the Senate declined to take them up for a vote.

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After the killing of 23 in a WalMart in El Paso, Texas, in 2019, Democrats in the House introduced a number of gun control bills, including one that would ban the sale of high-capacity magazines. The House passed what was considered the most significant gun control measure in decades, focused on expanding background checks; Republicans in the Senate did not take up the bill. (Trump had said he would veto the bill if it passed.)

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On Tuesday night, Democrats placed the Charleston loophole bill on the calendar, but it’s not clear when the Senate will vote on it. The Senate could also take up a bill that would expand background checks for all gun sales or transfers in the country, including those between relatives and friends. The bill, like the Charleston Loophole one, passed in the House last year, but, given it is even broader than the Manchin-Toomey bill, it seems unlikely to draw support from Republicans in the Senate.

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Senators are expected to leave for Memorial Day recess soon, so it’s unclear if Schumer will try to force a vote before their departure or wait to find a less ambitious, bipartisan approach. Manchin has once again called for Manchin-Toomey to be taken up; even that seems unlikely.

But Connecticut Sen. Christopher Murphy, a Democrat who has focused on gun control since the Sandy Hook shooting in his home state, doesn’t feel the same hopelessness that others in Democratic leadership—and on social media—seem to feel. While Murphy agrees that immediate legislation is unlikely, he said in an interview with the New York Times that Americans should not forget that the power of the NRA is waning, or that the Biden administration could lean on executive actions.

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“There was this popular meme in 2013, which said that if the killing of 20 children didn’t result in any action, nothing will,” he told the Times. “That’s fundamentally the wrong way to look at how Washington works. There are few epiphanies here. It’s all about political power, and political muscle, and we’re in the process of building our own.”

Murphy said he believed that the movement had come a long way since 2012. “[D]emocrats are under the illusion that it’s a losing issue for us,” he said. “My main recommendation is for Democrats to go out and run on this issue, proudly and strongly.”

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