House Republicans are preparing to vote in the days ahead to loosen gun laws, hopeful the optics are friendlier now that the national political conversation has turned away from the recent mass shootings in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, Texas.
The current Republican gambit is to bring three bills to the House floor this month as a single package.
One measure, the most controversial, would allow concealed-carry permits to be treated like driver’s licenses, considered valid from state-to-state. Republicans hope the two other measures, largely supported by Democrats, will soften the political blow.
The first proposal would strengthen federal background check procedures for individuals seeking to buy firearms. The second would require the Justice Department to rule on whether current law allows for more severe sentencing for users of “bump stocks,” an attachment that can make a semiautomatic rifle more lethal.
The hope is Democrats will feel pressured to vote for the concealed-carry bill because the package acknowledges changes are needed to current laws governing background checks and bump stocks. Republicans are also banking that these two bills will help deflect criticism that the party isn’t doing enough to prevent gun violence.
GOP lawmakers, though, insist the concealed-carry bill also would curb gun violence.
“The most effective first responder is a trained, concealed-carry permit holder who knows the law, knows how to use the weapon and will be the first to respond to protect his fellow citizens,” said Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, the sponsor of the background checks proposal.
Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., the sponsor of the concealed-carry measure, acknowledged that while support for his bill from within the GOP has been guaranteed “since July,” the events in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs prompted party leadership to slow down.
“You might have seen this move a few weeks sooner had Las Vegas hadn’t happened,” Hudson said. “I think there was some sensitivity to, ‘Let’s let some time pass.’ But this really is two separate issues.”
On Oct. 1 in Las Vegas, Stephen Paddock opened fire on an outdoor music festival, taking aim at the crowd from the high-up window of a hotel across the street to kill 58 people with a gun outfitted with a bump stock.
On Nov. 5 in Sutherland Springs, Devin Patrick Kelley killed 26 churchgoers with a gun he should not have been able to purchase had the background check system uncovered a past domestic violence record.
So far Democrats aren’t taking the Republican bait.
“California has tight restrictions on concealed carry, but under this bill, someone with a concealed-carry permit from Nevada or Arizona would be able to carry a concealed weapon in California, no questions asked,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a congressional leader in efforts to strengthen gun laws, said at a news conference last week.
Some Democrats, such as Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, have wondered whether the background check bill would do enough to prevent people from obtaining guns if it does nothing to lengthen the current, three-day waiting period.
The so-called “Charleston Loophole” allowed Dylann Storm Roof to walk away with a firearm before records could reveal that a prior illegal drug possession charge would make him ineligible to buy the weapon. A self-professed white supremacist, Roof used his weapon to kill nine black parishioners of Mother Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015.
Democrats also argue that Congress should pass a bill that outright bans bump stocks, not just ask the Attorney General for an opinion.
“What we’d really like is Congress to do something that can help save lives,” Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., said at a heated House Judiciary Committee debate on the gun bills last week. “Maybe outlaw devices that take a semiautomatic rifle and turn it into a fully automatic killing machine.”
Democratic Reps. Raul Grijalva of Arizona and Mike Thompson of California are also reminding colleagues about the Sportsmen's Heritage and Recreational Enhancement, or SHARE, Act. It aimed to enhance hunting and fishing experiences for outdoorsmen and included a provision making it easier to purchase noise suppressors for firearms.
The SHARE Act, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., was on track to be passed by the full House months ago. GOP leaders had difficulty finding a way to forge ahead, fearing an uproar.
Grijalva and Thompson introduced a new version of the SHARE Act scrubbed of gun-related provision to show Republicans that Democrats were prepared to work in good faith to pass a pared-down bill.
Allen Klump, a spokesman for Duncan, was dismissive.
“This bill is nothing more than a desperate publicity stunt attempting to halt the momentum of the only comprehensive sportsmen’s package in the House,” Klump said in a statement. “You can’t say you’re standing up for hunters and recreational sport shooters when you want to restrict the Second Amendment.”
Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, also shrugged off the effort. He also suggested that if House Republicans can pass the package of gun bills without major incident, it could make actually make it easier to move the SHARE Act.
Grijalva, the ranking committee member, told McClatchy on Friday that it was clear to him the SHARE Act as originally drafted could not advance, and it might not be so easy for Republicans to move the concealed-carry legislation, either.
“The SHARE Act reacted a real public response against it, and I think that (concealed carry) is going to cause the same uproar,” he predicted.
Emily Cadei and Brian Murphy from the McClatchy Washington bureau contributed to this report.