GOP lawmakers embrace ‘red flag’ gun law
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump said Wednesday he is talking with congressional leaders and considering tougher background checks for gun buyers as lawmakers coalesce around the idea of so-called “red flag” laws following mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.
“I’m looking to do background checks,” Trump told reporters at the White House as he was departing for Dayton, where he will meet with shooting survivors and first responders. “I think background checks are important.”
Trump, who will also visit El Paso later Wednesday, said he senses there is “a very strong appetite” for background checks, though many lawmakers have so far mostly focused publicly on so-called “red flag” laws to keep guns out of the hands of people who are an imminent danger to themselves or others.
Trump indicated there wasn’t a “political appetite” for limiting gun magazines.
“There is a great appetite, and I mean a very strong appetite, for background checks,” he said. “I think we can bring up background checks.”
Last weekend’s shootings, which killed 31 people, appear to have opened the door – if only for a crack – to the possibility that Congress could pass the first significant gun-control legislation in more than two decades.
Congressional Republicans, who have staunchly resisted past measures to tighten restrictions on guns, appear closer to embracing the idea of a “red flag” law.
“There are some laws that I think bridge this issue of the guns and the mental health issue, and I think red flag laws is one,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, told reporters.
Congress has consistently rejected other attempts to tighten gun control regulations in the aftermath of other mass shootings.
Then-President Barack Obama angrily wiped away tears and urged Americans to demand that Congress “stand up to the gun lobby’s lies” and protect citizens from gun violence after 20 first-graders and six adults were killed in a mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
Congress did nothing.
Cries for tougher gun-control measures were met with congressional inaction after mass shootings at a South Carolina church, a Pittsburgh synagogue, an Orlando gay nightclub, a Maryland community newspaper, a Florida high school, a country music festival in Las Vegas and a Navy yard in Washington, D.C.
The last significant gun control measure to win congressional approval was an assault weapons ban enacted in 1994. The ban expired a decade later and lawmakers did not renew it.
Trump, however, said that in light of last weekend’s shootings, he intends to persuade Congress “to do things they don’t want to do.”
“You have a lot of people on one side and a lot of people on the other,” he said. “I have a lot of influence with a lot of people; I want to convince them to do the right thing.”
Trump said he has talked with congressional leaders over the past few days and would be meeting with other members of Congress.
On Capitol Hill, there are signs of movement as pressure has increased on Congress to do something to stop the carnage.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., issued a statement saying that addressing gun violence is “a worthy conversation for lawmakers to have” and said he’s confident that Congress can find “common ground” on the red flag proposals.
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who has been pushing Congress for years to pass tougher background checks for gun buyers, said he talked to both Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., about the need for tougher gun laws following last weekend’s shootings.
“The truth is there is no law that we can pass that guarantees that there will never be another such mass shooting,” Toomey told reporters. “However, there are things that we can do to make our communities safer than they are today, and it’s past time for Congress to act.”
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McConnell, who has faced a torrent of criticism for blocking gun-control legislation that already has passed the House by wide margins, said he has asked the chairman of three Senate committees to begin a bipartisan discussion about how to protect communities from gun violence “without infringing on Americans’ constitutional rights.”
McConnell gave no indication that he’s willing to move ahead on the background check legislation that was approved in February by the Democratic-controlled House.
For now, the idea that appears to have the best chance of winning the bipartisan support to move through Congress appears to be a measure to get guns out of the hands of people who are a danger to themselves or others.
Two senators – Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut – said they have struck an agreement on the framework for “red flag” legislation that would provide grants and incentives to enable law enforcement and courts to remove guns when there’s a risk of danger to a gun owner or others.
The lawmakers will be finalizing details of the bill and reaching out to their colleagues for support in the coming days and weeks, Blumenthal said in a statement.
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In the House, meanwhile, Rep. Mike Turner, whose daughter was in a bar across the street when the shooting started in Dayton on Saturday night, issued a statement Tuesday announcing his support for preventing military style weapon sales to civilians, magazine limits and red flag legislation.
“I strongly support the Second Amendment, but we must prevent mentally unstable people from terrorizing our communities with military style weapons,” said Turner, R-Ohio. “… The carnage these military-style weapons are able to produce when available to the wrong people is intolerable.”
Congress, he said, also must pass red flag legislation to quickly identify people who are dangerous and remove their ability to harm others.
“Too often after mass shootings, we hear there were early warning signs that were ignored,” he said.
For their part, Democrats insist that McConnell also permit the Senate to vote on the background check legislation that already has passed the House.
“We’ve discussed this long enough,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Tuesday at a joint news conference with Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. “Discussions are fine, but let’s pass this bill now.”
“Red flag” legislation “is OK, but it doesn’t substitute for doing this,” Schumer said. “It’s not enough.”
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Scott Jennings, a Republican political strategist and a former McConnell aide, said he believes McConnell is serious about finding common ground, although it’s not yet clear what form that policy might take.
Red flag laws appear to have the most momentum, Jennings said, but McConnell is right to want to make sure that whatever proposals emerge have bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate.
After last weekend’s shootings, “I think the nation wants something,” Jennings said, “even as most people understand that you can’t legislate all the crazy and evil out of the world.”
Yet even as Republicans step forward and embrace proposals like red flag laws, it will still be tough getting them through Congress, said Matt Glassman of the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University.
“Red flag laws tend to be the kind of thing that don’t get the pro-gun groups too worried,” he said. But, “I think you’re going to see a divisive battle about this among Republicans.”’
Contributing: Lisa Kaczke of the Sioux Falls Argus Leader
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