Pressure builds on Congress, as major action on guns elusive

Michael Mathes
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Following horrific double massacres in the United States, Congress is under pressure to enact new gun safety legislation, but many Republicans, in particular the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have resisted

Following horrific double massacres in the United States, Congress is under pressure to enact new gun safety legislation, but many Republicans, in particular the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have resisted (AFP Photo/Go Nakamura)

Washington (AFP) - US President Donald Trump called for "great" reforms to gun laws following horrific back-to-back shootings, but while narrow congressional measures may be taken, comprehensive change is unlikely in a divided Washington.

Hoping to seize on the momentum for gun control, congressional Democrats including several candidates in next year's election are urging sweeping action to rein in the violence.

They want an expansion of background checks on virtually all gun sales, a move supported by most Americans.

Many also seek to revive a ban on military-style assault weapons and to outlaw high-capacity magazines, both of which were used in Sunday's Dayton, Ohio attack, where a gunman killed nine people in just 30 seconds.

Republicans were largely silent on gun safety after the shootings.

But bipartisan sentiment for action appears to be growing, and some Republicans this week expressed support for measures addressing ways to prevent people who should not have firearms from buying or owning them.

"The two horrific shootings that occurred this past weekend demonstrates why we must enact common sense reforms," Republican Senator Marco Rubio said.

Members of both parties acknowledge there is one lawmaker standing in the way: Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

A landmark bipartisan bill that would prevent firearm transfers at gun shows or between individuals without a background check passed the Democratic-led House early this year, but McConnell refused to bring it to the Senate floor for a vote.

Another House-passed measure, which closes a loophole allowing gun dealers to deliver weapons to buyers if the required background checks have not been completed within three days, is also languishing.

Democrats have united, demanding McConnell allow votes on the measures.

"If leader McConnell would simply bring this bill to the floor of the Senate now, I believe it would pass," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday as he stood shoulder to shoulder with Republican congressman Pete King, who co-sponsored the House background checks legislation.

"This should not be in any way a partisan issue, even though, too often, it becomes that," King said.

- 'The grim reaper' -

McConnell has described himself as "the grim reaper," relishing his role in burying all legislation that comes from the House and pushes what he calls the Democrats' "socialist" agenda.

Progress on Capitol Hill is always easier said than done. But when elections are near, lawmakers are particularly loath to take up contentious legislation.

Kristin Goss, a public policy professor at Duke University and co-author of the book "The Gun Debate," said it has now become even more difficult to enact major gun safety legislation with a Republican-led Senate, in part because of a political re-alignment over guns in recent decades.

"Democrats used to have white male pro-gun voters, but they're Republicans now," she told AFP.

"The Republican Party had a group of moderate, suburban women who were in favor of gun control, and those women are Democrats now."

Goss noted how a Republican minority in the Senate used blocking tactics to kill a 2013 background check bill after a gunman massacred 20 schoolchildren in Connecticut.

"The numbers in the Senate now are not as promising," she said, making comprehensive gun control reform even harder.

- Lifting the boot -

McConnell has come under immense pressure to act swiftly, before presidential campaigning swings into full gear.

He said Monday that Senate Republicans "are prepared to do our part," but he declined to specify next steps.

Meanwhile a rare sight has emerged in Congress: a gun safety measure attracting bipartisan support.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump loyalist, announced he is co-authoring legislation that would provide grants to states to set rules for law enforcement and relatives to temporarily take guns from people they determine are dangers to themselves or others.

Some states have already adopted such measures, known as red flag laws, and others are considering them.

Republican Senator Pat Toomey announced he is reviving the failed 2013 background checks bill he authored with Senate Democrat Joe Manchin.

House Republican Adam Kinzinger, who represents a swing district in Illinois, recently announced his support for red flag legislation, and more.

"I believe it's time for universal background checks for gun purchases, raising the age to 21 to purchase a firearm, and banning certain high capacity magazines," he wrote in an op-ed.

The question is whether such measures can earn enough Republican support to convince McConnell to lift his boot off the bills.