House Democrats are charging ahead with efforts to promote tougher gun laws, eyeing plans to force votes on new firearm restrictions and hone a campaign message around the Republicans’ all but certain inaction.
The push has been animated by last month’s shooting massacre at an elementary school in Nashville, Tenn., where a 28-year-old killed three children and three adults — the latest in a long string of prominent mass shootings in a country where they’ve become routine.
The Democrats’ strategy remains a work in progress, as party leaders weigh options for maximizing the pressure on GOP leaders, who have long opposed new firearm restrictions and have no intention of bringing such proposals to the floor.
Many Democrats are already maneuvering to tap a procedural tool, known as a discharge petition, in a long-shot effort to force votes on high-profile gun reforms — like expanded background checks and an assault weapons ban — over the objection of the majority party leadership.
And some want to go even further by promoting a broader package of bills that would also advance “red flag” laws, curb ghost guns, ban high-capacity magazines, fight gun trafficking, and lengthen the review window for existing background checks — an idea that gained traction after the 2015 mass shooting at a Black church in Charleston, S.C.
“All of that should go in there,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler (N.Y.), senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over gun policy.
From a practical legislative standpoint, the effort is unlikely to be effective. A discharge petition requires a simple House majority — 218 lawmakers — to force bills to the floor, and even the most ardent gun reformers aren’t optimistic they’ll find the five Republicans willing to buck their leadership and sign on.
“We used to have bipartisan support for a couple of these things. I don’t know if we still do,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) said.
Politically, however, Democrats feel like they have the upper hand, pointing to the popularity of certain gun reform measures — background checks, for instance, have support hovering around 90 percent — to bash Republicans for defying public sentiment. If they can’t control the floor, they can control their message, and they hope the contrast between the parties will resonate with voters outraged by epidemic gun violence.
“It isn’t enough to go back home and say, ‘Well, we’re not in charge. When we were in charge we brought such-and-such bill,’” Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) said. “There are other ways that we can continue to put pressure — we can continue to show the American people that we’re not hopeless in this. We shouldn’t accept that babies die in their classroom and that’s just it.”
Spanberger had advocated for a discharge petition during a Democratic Caucus meeting last week in the Capitol, which drew an enthusiastic response from other Democrats, including members of leadership.
“There’s tremendous interest in doing it,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who recently joined Nadler to press Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) to consider Cicilline’s bill to ban military-style semi-automatic rifles, like those used in Nashville.
“If Mr. Jordan and the Speaker refuse … then the mechanism available to us is a discharge petition, and I think you’ll see that coming,” Cicilline said.
Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), the chairman of the caucus, cautioned that the obscure rules governing discharge petitions mean the process, if Democrats choose to pursue it, is destined to drag out for months to come. But the growing number of school shootings, he added, demands some form of response.
“It’s complicated. Nothing is quick,” Aguilar said. “We’re mindful of being a minority and what that means, but we generally want to get something done.”
The debate follows the same contours that have accompanied Congress’s response to every new mass shooting of recent decades, pitting Democrats seeking new gun limits against Republicans warning that new restrictions would encroach on Second Amendment rights guaranteed under the Constitution.
“I don’t think one piece of legislation solves this,” McCarthy told reporters last week, sidestepping questions about the appropriate congressional response.
Highlighting the stark partisan undercurrents, Republican state legislators in Tennessee voted Thursday to oust two Democratic lawmakers who had participated in an anti-gun violence protest last week at the statehouse — an extraordinary response to non-criminal activity.
Fueling the debate, the shooter at the Nashville elementary school was armed with three guns — two of them military-style assault rifles — and fired off 152 rounds in roughly 15 minutes, according to local authorities. The shooter killed three children and three adults before being killed by police.
What specific proposal Democrats might attach to a discharge petition remains under debate.
Some suggested the background check expansion, which polls the highest and already has the support of some GOP lawmakers, is the logical place to begin. Others said the assault weapons ban should be a part of any reform effort, given the popularity of military-style weapons like the AR-15 among perpetrators of mass shootings. And lawmakers like Nadler are pushing for a much more comprehensive package that also addresses trafficking, storage and ghost guns, while raising the purchasing age for certain weapons to 21.
“We’re looking at every option,” Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) said, adding that he and GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.) are drafting a letter to Republican leaders urging action on their background check bill.
“You can’t legislate for the latest tragedy,” Thompson said. “But over 100 people a day are killed by someone using a gun. And we know that the thing you could do that would have the most immediate effect is background checks.”
Spanberger, for her part, is open to a number of different proposals if Democratic leaders push ahead with a discharge petition. A former federal law enforcement agent, she emphasized that law enforcers armed with 15-round magazines were once at an advantage over violent criminals, but no longer.
“The idea that you can just walk into a room and shoot 100 people in that much time — there’s not time to react,” she said. “Police officers put their lives on the line everyday. But let’s also recognize that we should set them up for success.”
Spanberger’s aggressive advocacy demonstrates how the gun debate has shifted over the past few decades, from a “third-rail” issue considered a career ender for politicians in certain parts of the country, to a popular concept across a spectrum of voters fed up with a long and seemingly endless string of mass shootings, particularly in schools.
Spanberger said there’s “plenty” of push back to her position in her district, a heavily rural region sandwiched between Richmond and Washington, D.C. But the push for reforms, she quickly added, is worth the potential cost.
“If I lose because I don’t want babies to die in their classrooms, f— it,” she said.