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Posted: August 4, 2019
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Gun Control Is Thrust Into 2020 Campaign, but New Laws Face Hurdles



The back-to-back mass shootings in Texas and Ohio—one of which authorities are investigating as a possible hate crime—thrust back into the national spotlight the debate over gun-control laws, which is likely to dominate the presidential campaign in coming days even as legislation faces steep odds of passing.

Democrats on Sunday lambasted Senate Republicans for opposing legislation they said would help prevent mass shootings, while they also attacked President Trump for rhetoric that they said helped incite the violence. Republicans expressed outrage at the weekend shootings that killed 29 people but offered few signs of wavering on their opposition to new gun laws.


“Hate has no place in our country, and we’re going to take care of it,” Mr. Trump told reporters Sunday as he left his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J. He offered no specifics, saying only that he had spoken to lawmakers about “whatever we can do” and that “perhaps more has to be done.” He said he would make a statement Monday morning at the White House.

With Congress recessed for August, any gun-control fight is likely to play out between Democratic presidential contenders and the White House. Gun control has already been a prominent theme in the Democratic presidential primary, where candidates broadly agree on legislation such as universal background checks.

Some candidates have gone farther than others with plans to curb the flow of guns in the U.S. if they were president, such as a vow by Sen. Kamala Harris of California to take executive action within 100 days and a proposal by Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey to set tougher standards for firearm ownership.

With Congress recessed for August, any gun-control fight is likely to play out between Democratic presidential contenders and the White House. Gun control has already been a big theme in the Democratic presidential primary, with candidates such as Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey vowing to take executive action to curb the flow of guns in the U.S., imposing universal background checks and setting tougher standards for firearm ownership.

“Every time this happens, we say never again. We say we’re going to do something. We say it’s going to change and it hasn’t,” Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “At the end of the day, without political change, I don’t know that we’ll get the solutions we need. But if this doesn’t do it, I don’t know what will.”


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Broad support exists for stricter laws governing the sales of firearms. A Reuters/Ipsos poll taken in February showed 69% of Americans—including 85% of Democrats and 57% of Republicans—wanted strong or moderate restrictions on firearms, and 55% said they favored policies making it harder to own a gun.

But even high-profile mass shootings have frequently prompted much talk but little action in Washington. Of those poll respondents who favored stronger gun laws, 8% said they were “very confident” lawmakers would do anything about it.

Republican lawmakers are unlikely to act on gun legislation without explicit support from the president, said Doug Heye, a GOP strategist.

“If President Trump weighs in, and leans in, we can see reasonable changes in our gun laws,” Mr. Heye said. “His base trusts him and would allow him to cut a deal on guns that other Republican presidents would not be allowed to make. Otherwise, the status quo will largely remain.”

The president has taken small steps to tighten gun laws but has expressed little interest in major changes. A year after a 2017 shooting that killed 59 people at a country-music concert in Las Vegas, the Trump administration moved to ban rapid-fire devices known as bump stocks. A Justice Department rule classifying the devices as machine guns took effect this year, effectively banning them under federal law.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Trump has frequently attacked his opponents by telling supporters that “they’re going to take your guns away” and has suggested the solution is arming more, not fewer, people. He has also vowed to veto legislation passed by the Democratic House broadening background checks.

The weekend violence, and the president’s response to it, took on added significance as authorities said they would investigate the shooting in El Paso, Texas, that left 20 dead as a possible hate crime. Law-enforcement officials are scrutinizing an online manifesto purportedly written by the suspect that described a potential mass shooting as a response to an “invasion of Texas” by Hispanic immigrants. El Paso is more than 80% Hispanic; the suspect is a white male.

On Sunday, Democratic presidential contenders including Mr. Buttigieg, Mr. Booker and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke on Sunday said Mr. Trump’s rhetoric had incited that violence, pointing to similar language the president has used about immigrants from south of the U.S. border.

“We’ve got to acknowledge the hatred, the open racism that we’re seeing,” Mr. O’Rourke said on CNN. The president, Mr. O’Rourke said, “is encouraging this. He doesn’t tolerate it.”

Mr. Booker said on MSNBC that the president was responsible for the rise in white nationalist violence. “You reap what you sow, and Donald Trump has been sowing this kind of hatred in our country,” Mr. Booker said.

Mr. Trump’s defenders said the president shouldn’t be blamed for mass shootings, which have been a problem for decades. Senior White House adviser Kellyanne Conway on
Twitter
criticized “finger-pointing” as unproductive. Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney on ABC’s “This Week” defended the president’s rhetoric, saying, “I don’t think it’s fair to try to lay this at the feet of the president.”

Mr. Mulvaney also gave conflicting statements about the gravity of white nationalist violence, calling it a “serious problem” but adding: “This is not the same as international nuclear weapons.”

Mass shootings have been on the rise for decades, but the problem has gotten worse in recent years, with 2017, the year of the Las Vegas massacre, the deadliest year in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s records. The uptick in such shootings has also coincided with a rise in hate crimes and white nationalist violence in recent years. A Government Accountability Office report in 2017 said far-right violent extremist groups were responsible for 73% of fatal violent extremist incidents since September 2001.

Mr. Trump has described an invasion at the border in more than half a dozen tweets this year and in a May statement issued by the White House said “hundreds of thousands of people coming through Mexico” had invaded the U.S. In recent weeks, a series of tweets by Mr. Trump calling for a group of minority Democratic lawmakers to “go back” where they came from were condemned as racist in a rare vote by the Democratic-led House.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, on Sunday said the National Rifle Association had stood in the way of measures to make gun laws stricter. “The issue of the moment is whether the NRA will continue to determine gun policy in America,” he said on CNN.

The NRA spent a record $54 million to bolster Mr. Trump and Republican congressional candidates in 2016, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. In 2018, its political-action committee directed 98% of its donations to Republican candidates.

Democratic lawmakers on Sunday called for the Senate to immediately take up a bill passed by the Democratic-controlled House earlier this year that would require background checks on all firearm sales.

On the CNN program, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) called for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) to reconvene the Senate, which is on recess for August, on Monday for a vote on the bill. Mr. McConnell’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether he would consider doing so.

The legislation the House passed in February would ensure that buyers would be vetted for almost all private sales online and at gun shows. Republicans in the Senate have declined to take up the legislation.

While Congress has done little to change gun laws for decades, there have been small signs that the dynamics are shifting. Some Senate Republicans, including Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), back so-called red-flag measures aimed at temporarily blocking dangerous people from accessing firearms, which more than a dozen states have adopted.

Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania on Sunday noted that he and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia had developed a bipartisan proposal to expand background checks to all commercial firearm sales. “We must do more to keep guns out of the hands of psychopaths,” he said.

Write to Rebecca Ballhaus at Rebecca.Ballhaus@wsj.com, Paul Kiernan at paul.kiernan@wsj.com and Natalie Andrews at Natalie.Andrews@wsj.com


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