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Dems toe delicate line on assault weapons ban

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House Democratic leaders are toeing a delicate line with their promise to consider legislation this summer banning assault weapons — a politically explosive concept that divides both the Congress and the country.

The issue has been front-and-center in the national gun-reform debate following a recent string of high-profile mass shootings, including the May 14 massacre at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., and another 10 days later at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two teachers were killed. 

In both cases, a lone, 18-year-old gunman is alleged to have used a military-style semi-automatic rifle to target the victims, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has vowed to hold a hearing this summer on legislation to ban such weapons. She has not, however, promised a floor vote.

The concept is overwhelmingly popular in the Democratic Caucus — a proposal sponsored by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) has attracted 209 cosponsors — and liberals in the ranks are pressing the party brass to bring the legislation to the floor before November’s midterm elections. 

“I would love a chance to vote for it,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), “and I would love a chance to put others on record.”

But there’s a much smaller group of centrist Democrats, some of them facing tough reelection contests, who oppose banning a class of firearms that has emerged in recent years as among the most popular guns in the country. Most of those centrists voted earlier this month for a package of separate gun reforms — which included provisions to raise the age for assault weapons purchases and bolster state red flag laws — but are set against an assault weapons ban. 

“I don’t believe in bans on weapons,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who recently won a tight primary race against a progressive rival. “Do I believe in certain restrictions? Yes. But a ban on guns? No.”

Democrats have only a slim majority in the lower chamber, and the opposition from lawmakers like Cuellar have raised several questions governing the fate of the assault weapons ban. First, could such a bill pass in the House if leadership were to bring it to the floor? And second, would leadership keep it off of the floor, even if it does have the numbers to pass, in order to shield vulnerable lawmakers from a tough vote?

Cicilline, for his part, is watching closely and making clear where he stands. 

“As soon as we have the votes, I hope we’ll bring it to the floor,” he said. “We’re just a little bit short, but we’re getting very close.” 

Very close, indeed.

With five current vacancies in the House, supporters of the bill would need 216 votes to push it through. The list of 209 co-sponsors does not include Cicilline and at least two other likely supporters: Pelosi and Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), a Vietnam veteran who leads the Democrats anti-gun violence task force. Together, they would bring the “yes” votes to 212.

“I have been on both ends of an assault weapon as a Vietnam combat veteran so I understand that these types of weapons have no place on our streets,” Thompson said Thursday. “Depending on the language, I would be inclined to vote for the bill.”

Another Democrat who has not signed on is Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore), who declined to comment. “We’ll see what happens,” he said. 

One Republican, Rep. Chris Jacobs (N.Y.), will support Cicilline’s bill if it hits the floor, his office confirmed this week. Another Republican, Reps. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.),  has also voiced support for the concept of a ban, but has not endorsed the Democrats’ proposal. His office did not respond to a request for comment. 

By Cicilline’s count, they are two votes short.

“These are weapons of war that were designed to kill as many people as quickly as possible,” he said. “So we ought to have the ban back in effect.”

Fueling the push to pass the legislation are recent public opinion polls, which indicate strong support for an assault weapons ban in the wake of the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings. A Fox News survey released last week, for instance, found that 63 percent of Americans back the idea. 

Still, that popular support has done little to alter sentiments on Capitol Hill, where Republicans are near-unanimous in their opposition to the ban. Dismissing the Fox numbers, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) suggested the respondents were simply uninformed about what the proposal would do. 

“Constituents are asked poll questions. They’re not asked questions about specific language within legislative text,” he told Fox. 

The issue is especially fraught for incumbent Democrats in purple districts where Second Amendment rights are sacrosanct and tough new gun restrictions — even those proven popular by public opinion surveys — may lead to a backlash at the polls. 

“That’s definitely something that we need to be careful with,” said Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, another South Texas Democrat. “I’m for responsible gun ownership, and there needs to be a balance between responsible gun ownership and just a straight-up ban.”

Liberals have other ideas, however, arguing that promoting public safety is more important than protecting assault weapons — or political careers — even if it means Democrats lose control of the House. 

“I’m not sympathetic,” said Huffman said of the leery centrists. “I think this issue is just far more important than whatever defensive politics they may be practicing. And honestly I think they’re afraid of a phantom backlash that’s not even real. The American people are with us on this.” 

Will it pass? “I don’t know,” Huffman said. “But I think everyone should have to put up that vote. Including people in my own party.” 

That restlessness has not gone unnoticed in the leadership ranks. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said last week that the bill “may well” be brought to the floor for a vote because “a number of members want it up on the floor.”

“The assault weapon bill, we know, can’t pass the Senate,” Hoyer acknowledged. “But … at some point in time that may well happen that we bring that bill forward for a vote, because people want to express themselves on it.”

Providing leadership some cover, even some vulnerable Democrats agree that the recent massacres should prompt Congress to ban assault weapons. 

“There is some question about whether we should take stuff up knowing that it’s not going anywhere in the Senate. But the other side of that coin is: People are getting killed out there,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), a liberal co-sponsor of Cicilline’s bill who’s been redistricted this year into a tougher district. 

“I know the politics sometimes are difficult — it might hurt me,” he continued. “But given everything that’s going on in the country, I wouldn’t let the politics get in the way of my vote.”

Pelosi, in a June 2 letter to fellow Democrats, touted the effectiveness of the assault weapons ban that was in place from 1994 to 2004, saying it was “proven to save lives.” She’s promised that the House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the issue “soon.” 

Asked Wednesday when it might happen, Pelosi said, “When the committee decides.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who leads the Judiciary panel, said the issue is still on his radar, but no hearing date has been finalized. “I don’t know yet,” he said. 

Pelosi said House Democrats have been waiting for the Senate to finish with their gun reform negotiations, suggesting the assault weapons ban could distract from those efforts. 

That package, which includes provisions to expand background checks, fortify red flag laws and boost security and mental health programs at the nation’s schools, is expected to be approved by the Senate and House by the end of the week.

“That’s our focus right now,” Pelosi said. “And nobody wants to get in the way of [it].”

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