US Democrats demand gun safety action as Congress reconvenes

Michael Mathes
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The US Capitol is seen on September 9, 2019 in Washington, DC as Congress returns from its summer recess

The US Capitol is seen on September 9, 2019 in Washington, DC as Congress returns from its summer recess (AFP Photo/MANDEL NGAN)

Washington (AFP) - US lawmakers returned to Congress Monday after a summer rocked by mass shootings, with Democrats demanding President Donald Trump and his Republicans take action to restrict access to guns.

Senate and House members face a packed near-term legislative agenda, including the need to fund the government by October 1 or risk a shutdown.

The White House is also keen to push negotiations with Congress over the revised NAFTA trade pact, with Trump wanting the deal with Canada and Mexico to become law before the 2020 election campaigns dominates Washington.

The issue of impeachment, the tool a growing number of Democrats support using as a means to try to oust Trump from office, is also simmering, as House Democrats announced steps that could soon formalize the impeachment process.

But guns top the Democrats' immediate to-do list. Party leaders say they aim to mark up three gun control bills this week, and are pressing for the Senate's Republican leadership to allow a vote on a landmark background check bill that cleared the House earlier this year.

Both parties are acknowledging that any significant action depends on Trump.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he will only bring a gun bill to the floor if it has presidential backing, but Trump has given no clear preference.

Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer convened a press conference Monday where he, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others demanded a vote on expanding background checks, which Schumer said would save many lives but which has languished in the Senate.

"Two people in Washington can make sure the background check bill passes: Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell," Schumer said.

"It is totally up to them," he added. "They can't escape that responsibility."

Pelosi also stood firm in demanding McConnell take action on the bipartisan measure that passed her chamber nearly 200 days ago.

- 'Not going away' -

"We are not taking no for an answer," she said. "We are not going away."

Congress resumes work following a bloody month of August in which dozens of Americans were slain in mass shootings.

The month began with the slaughter of 22 people in El Paso, Texas, which was followed the next day by the murders of nine people in Dayton, Ohio and ended with a rampage in Odessa, Texas that left seven dead.

Trump has met or spoken with lawmakers from both parties on possible gun legislation.

Senate Democrat Chris Coons says he has been negotiating with the White House on gun safety measures, including legislation that would require federal authorities to notify states when someone trying to purchase a firearm fails a background check.

As Congress reconvened, the frontrunner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Joe Biden, said passing gun safety legislation "should be the first order of business" for lawmakers.

The former vice president also tweeted that McConnell and Senate Republicans must "stand up" to the National Rifle Association, which opposes expanding background checks.

With Democrats seeking to advance what they consider common-sense measures, Republicans want Trump to present a path forward.

"The president needs to step up here and set some guidelines for what he would do," Republican Senator Roy Blunt told NBC's "Meet the Press" show Sunday.

- 'Please move' -

Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley signaled potential movement, telling reporters she had a "good conversation" at the White House with Kellyanne Conway and other presidential aides.

Whaley said 276 mayors signed a letter calling for an up-or-down background check vote.

"Senator McConnell will not move until Donald Trump tells him to move, and so we said 'look, we're mayors and police chiefs coming together saying, please move.'"

Pelosi and Schumer wrote the president Sunday saying his "urgent, personal intervention is needed to stem the endless massacres of our fellow Americans by gunfire."

They told Trump the background check bill would close the "gaping loophole" that allows private gun sellers to evade existing background check requirements.

Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, who represents El Paso, noted that the Odessa shooter used such a loophole to buy the assault rifle he used in his August 31 rampage, and condemned those who have opposed closing that gap.

"There's... more blood on the hands of those who choose not to take action," Escobar said.

But Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas questioned whether expanding background checks would have stopped the gunman, and warned about "show votes" and "political posturing" instead of problem-solving.

"Trying to suggest that some sort of additional background check would have solved that problem, when what the dealer did and what the purchaser did were already illegal, I just don't think holds up," Cornyn said on the Senate floor.