What Congress Might Do on Gun Control

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Mike Theiler/Reuters)
Momentum is growing for a red-flag bill, but details about possible background-check legislation remain hazy.

Since last weekend’s massacres in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio left 31 people dead, a growing number of Republicans in Washington have expressed support for a “red flag” bill that would allow a narrow class of people to petition a court to disarm an individual who is a threat to himself or others.

“We must make sure that those judged to pose a grave risk to public safety do not have access to firearms, and that, if they do, those firearms can be taken through rapid due process,” President Trump said during his remarks on Monday. “That is why I have called for red-flag laws, also known as extreme risk protection orders.”

“There is some momentum for the red-flag bills,” Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, tells National Review. “You’ve got to be very careful how you do that: Very well-defined criteria and very strong due process.”

“A red-flag bill is likely to go through the Judiciary Committee. Senator [Lindsey] Graham has said he wants to do a mark-up, so I think that’s pretty likely,” Toomey adds.

Although Congress is adjourned for the August recess, Graham, the South Carolina Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee, has said that he and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) will soon introduce a bill that would provide grants to states to “assist and encourage” the adoption of red-flag laws. “These grants will be given to law enforcement so they can hire and consult with mental-health professionals to better determine which cases need to be acted upon. This grant program also requires robust due process and judicial review. It does allow for quick action,” Graham said in a statement.

John Thune of South Dakota, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, told the Argus Leader this week that he was “confident Congress will be able to find common ground on the so-called red-flag issue.” But Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer has suggested Democrats might not go along with a red-flag bill. In a statement earlier this week, Schumer seemed to tie the passage of any such bill to the passage of universal-background-check legislation:

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may very well allow a vote on the universal-background-checks legislation (H.R. 8) that passed the House in February with the votes of 232 Democrats and eight Republicans. He said Thursday that background checks will be “front and center” when the Senate returns from its August recess to debate gun control. But H.R. 8 doesn’t seem to have a chance of actually passing. The White House issued a veto threat in February, which read, in part:

Unless an exemption applies, both the act of leaving a weapon in the temporary care of a neighbor while traveling and the act of later retrieving that weapon would require processing by a licensed entity under H.R. 8. Also, unless such an exemption applies, domestic violence victims would be prohibited from borrowing a firearm for self-defense without first having the transaction go through such a licensed entity. The extensive regulation required by H.R. 8 is incompatible with the Second Amendment’s guarantee of an individual right to keep arms.

The Senate voted on a background-check bill that didn’t go as far as H.R. 8 back in 2013. The measure, co-sponsored by Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Pat Toomey, got the support of just four Republicans, only two of whom (Toomey and Maine’s Susan Collins) are still serving. For something like the Manchin–Toomey bill to clear the Senate’s 60-vote threshold, a significant number of Republicans would have to change their minds on the issue.

Yet President Trump is publicly insisting that something must be done on background checks. “Frankly, we need intelligent background checks. This isn’t a question of NRA, Republican, or Democrat,” he told reporters on Friday.

It’s far from clear what he has in mind.

“I’ve spoken with him extensively about this,” Toomey says. “He’s thinking something ought to be done, and I don’t think he’s made a final decision on where he lands on this. But I think he’s seriously considering some kind of broadening of the background check.”

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