WASHINGTON — Gun control policy, not impeachment, was supposed to dominate the discourse on Capitol Hill this fall.
In early August — just two months ago — lawmakers on both sides of the aisle promised a debate on federal efforts to curb gun violence in the wake of the back-to-back mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso.
President Donald Trump lauded legislative prospects for “meaningful background checks.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said: “What we can’t do is fail to pass something,” NPR reported. He added, “the urgency of this is not lost on any of us.”
But prospects for meaningful gun control legislation appear increasingly slim now that the U.S. House launched an impeachment inquiry against Trump. The White House has dismissed the notion of legislative compromise as the inquiry plays out, although some Democrats and gun control advocates point to the impeachment proceedings as just the latest excuse for Republicans who have long been reluctant to back stricter federal gun laws.
The impeachment inquiry in the House is “clearly crowding out the opportunity to do most other kinds of legislation at the moment,” Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, the lead GOP sponsor of a Senate effort to expand federal background checks for firearms, told reporters in his home state last week.
Trump and other Republicans have pointed to gun control as one of the key issues where legislation might have been enacted if Democrats weren’t pursuing Trump’s impeachment.
The White House responded to the launch of the inquiry last month by broadly dismissing the prospect of legislative compromise. “House Democrats have destroyed any chances of legislative progress for the people of this country,” White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement on Sept. 24, the same day House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced the inquiry.
Trump wrote on Twitter that day: “The Democrats are so focused on hurting the Republican Party and the President that they are unable to get anything done because of it, including legislation on gun safety, lowering of prescription drug prices, infrastructure, etc. So bad for our Country!”
Congressional Republicans have also accused Democrats of thwarting their own policy priorities by pursuing impeachment proceedings against the president.
“I hope we work on legislative fixes for the problems we have,” Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.). He said Democrats have “chased [impeachment] for three years; it’s time to start doing legislation.”
Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, said the impeachment effort would slow down “everything” in the House. Democrats, he added, “are so distracted right now.”
‘Flavor of the month’
But Democrats who were already wary of a watered-down compromise on gun control counter that there was virtually no chance of making meaningful progress on the issue, given the GOP’s broad reluctance to consider tougher gun laws.
“The president never was behind sensible gun legislation,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.), a vocal proponent of stricter gun laws who serves on the Judiciary Committee. “If he had come in with that ambition, he could have moved background check bills, he could have been a champion of these bills.”
The House cleared legislation in February that would broadly expand federal background check requirements for gun sales. But that bill hasn’t moved in the Senate. Toomey’s bipartisan effort in the Senate isn’t as broad; it would require background checks on commercial sales, but not private transactions as the House bill seeks to do.
“The unfortunate reality is the Senate majority leader has refused to take any of the legislation that we’ve passed,” said Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.). Neguse rejected the argument that the House’s “responsibility to hold this president accountable under the law” would “somehow hinder the ability to make progress on an important issue like gun violence prevention.”
When asked earlier this year about whether they would support tougher gun legislation, only one of Colorado’s three GOP congressmen indicated he might. Rep. Scott Tipton said he would be open to debate on red flag legislation, provided that legislation protected a gun owner’s due-process rights.
In February, Tipton’s Colorado colleagues, Reps. Ken Buck and Doug Lamborn (4th and 5th Districts), joined him in voting against legislation that would require background checks on all firearm sales and increase the background check length from three to 10 days.
Christian Heyne, vice president of policy for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, accused McConnell of making a career “of making excuses for why he can’t act on gun violence.”
The fight over impeachment “just happens to be the flavor of the month,” he added.
McConnell and the Trump administration could have acted on the issue earlier in this administration, Heyne said. Gun violence “happens every day. It didn’t just happen in August.”
Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said he’s skeptical that gun control legislation will pass in the midst of the impeachment spat. But that doesn’t mean Democrats shouldn’t pursue the impeachment inquiry, he added.
“My sense of the pulse of the Democratic caucus is that as important as gun safety is … you can’t ignore the constitutional responsibility of a president that’s betraying the Constitution. You just can’t,” Beyer said.
Toomey stressed that he hasn’t given up on the effort. “There has been no decision that the administration is not going to pursue this. I’m still very much in favor,” he said last week.
And although impeachment appears to have stalled gun control negotiations at the moment, Toomey said, “My hope is this moment doesn’t last terribly long, and after it has passed, we’re able to — and maybe even more able to — pass some legislation.”
Pennsylvania Capital-Star Editor John Micek contributed to this report.