President Donald Trump is making a fresh – if unexpected – push for some gun law reforms following a tragic mass shooting last week in Florida, but it’s not clear they will be embraced by Republican leaders on Capitol Hill nor rank-and-file conservatives who have long stood against diminishing gun rights.
House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have said little publicly since a former student massacred 17 people at a high school in Parkland about what Congress could do to address the epidemic of school shootings with legislation to reduce gun violence.
In the wake of these types of tragedies, both Republican leaders regularly tout their longstanding positions that enforcing existing gun laws and addressing mental health issues – not imposing new limits to gun ownership – should be the focus.
With the GOP majority in the House, and potentially even the Senate, at risk in November’s midterm elections, any move by Ryan or McConnell to alienate pro-gun rights base voters – who they need to be enthusiastic and show up in large numbers at the polls – is politically tricky and not one they are ready to take.
In addition, the vast majority of GOP lawmakers, who are out of town for a week long recess, oppose most gun control measures and are not pressing their leaders for action.
Trump has repeatedly insisted in recent days he wants to “get something done” to address safety in schools.
“Unlike for many years where people sitting in my position did not take action – they didn’t take proper action, they took no action at all – we’re going to take action,” Trump said during a meeting with law enforcement officials at the White House, when the President also offered support for raising the legal age to purchase guns, getting rid of bump fire stocks, a controversial gun accessory that allows it to fire more rapidly, and focusing on mental health reforms.
But Trump’s shifting positions on gun proposals make it difficult for congressional Republicans to know whether they would get any political cover with a base that continues to stand by core beliefs to protect the Second Amendment. Something the President says he backs today could easily be reversed in a new tweet tomorrow.
If Trump truly wants to have the GOP-led House and Senate pass these reforms, he will need to make a sustained push and be prepared to use his political capital to get it done over the objections of powerful interest groups like the National Rifle Association.
National polls show that a majority of Americans do support some targeted gun control measures, such as beefing up the background check system, but many GOP lawmakers say they are not feeling any pressure from voters in solidly red districts or states back home. One thing they do hear from their constituents, many of whom are single-issue voters, is that they will oppose those who change the laws.
Immediately following the shooting, Ryan argued it wasn’t appropriate to wade into another divisive debate, but instead called for unity for those affected.
“This is one of those moments where we just need to step back and count our blessings,” he told reporters a day after the events unfolded at a press conference on Capitol Hill. “We need to think less about taking sides and fighting each other politically, and just pulling together. This House, and the whole country, stands with the Parkland community.”
Few House Republicans pressed for any legislative fixes. Moderate Florida GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who is in one of the most competitive House districts, has pressed for a floor vote on his bipartisan bill to ban bump stocks, the tool that can be used to make a semi-automatic gun perform like an automatic weapon, and supports a bill to allow federal research on gun violence. Another House GOP member, Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York, called for hearings.
A day after the Parkland shooting, McConnell took to the Senate floor to condemn the vicious act, praise the heroism of first responders and send prayers to the victims. But he made no mention of a need for a legislative response – one dealing with curbs on guns or other root causes of these crimes, such as mental health.
“To say that such brutal, pointless violence is unconscionable is an understatement,” the Kentucky Republican said. “Schools should be places where children can learn, and faculty and staff can work, without fear of violence.”
The top GOP senator is keenly aware there is not much appetite in his largely conservative conference for even the modest reforms Trump appears to be embracing, much less the sweeping gun law changes many Democrats champion.
Fiery comments from NRA chief Wayne LaPierre, at a conservative gathering outside Washington, illustrate why.
“The elites don’t care not one whip about America’s school system and school children,” LaPierre told the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday. “Their goal is to eliminate the second amendment and our firearms freedoms, so they can eradicate all individual freedoms.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer responded.
“The NRA is once again spewing pathetic, out of touch ideas, blaming everything but guns,” the Democratic leaders said in a statement. “The real test of President Trump and the Republican Congress is not words and empathy, but action. Will President Trump and the Republicans finally buck the NRA and get something done? Could this time be different?”
Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, a longtime opponent of gun control measures, publicly signaled he was revising his own positions at a CNN town hall on Wednesday night – coming out in favor of banning gun sales to 18-year-olds who can now buy rifles, and potentially limiting the size of ammunition clips. One retiring lawmaker, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, announced he was working on a bill to up the age for those purchasing guns to 21, but there has been no rush from other Republicans to jump on board or call for votes.
Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, pointed to the legislation to fix the National Instant Background Check System, also called NICS, that the House approved in December, after another mass shooting in Texas exposed holes in the system that failed to flag a former service member to the database for his record of domestic violence. The bill passed narrowly because all except six House Democrats opposed the measure it was paired with, a bill to loosen gun restrictions to allow those with permits to carry concealed weapons to legally travel with those firearms to other states.
The unusual public profile of those high school students who survived the shooting and the increased public pressure had House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi point to their role as a “tipping point” in the debate over gun legislation.
“They are doing a historic thing and I think they will make a big difference – channeling their grief, their sorrow, their anger really, to save lives,” Pelosi said, adding that “all we are asking for is the speaker is to give us a vote. We believe here is bipartisan support for improving the background check bill.”
But the response from top Hill Republicans leaders is similar to the ones they have had in recent mass shootings – in Las Vegas, in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in Orlando, Florida. Five years after the stunning murder of elementary school children and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut, Congress returns to the same debate over and over.
The wide gulf in ideological views of the two parties has not changed, and the cautious response from GOP leaders continue to reflect that dynamic. The only force that might be able to change it is Trump himself. If the President decides to fully embrace the reforms he is touting, he might be able to get congressional Republicans to buy in.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.