The last faint hope that Congress would do something this year to address gun violence in the wake of last month’s Orlando night club massacre may have been extinguished on Thursday as House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) put off votes this week on a package of anti-terrorism measures including a modest effort to keep guns out of the hands of terrorists.
The Senate struck out June 20, failing to reach agreement on four proposals advanced by Republicans and Democrats that would at least show some congressional concern about the spate of shootings and terrorist violence that have shocked voters and prompted increased calls for action. If anything were to happen this year, then it would be up to the House to jumpstart the process.
But that’s no longer likely to happen, as Ryan and other GOP House leaders pulled back under mounting pressure from the arch-conservative House Freedom Caucus and other anti-gun control conservatives
Ryan originally was against bringing any gun-related bill to the floor, mindful of the dominance of the National Rifle Association among many of his members. He dismissed as a crass “political stunt” a House Democratic sit-in on the House floor more than a week ago to force a vote this year on expanded background checks for those attempting to purchase guns and a ban on gun sales to people who turn up on certain government lists of suspected terrorists.
The speaker had a change of heart late last week, after the Democratic sit-in led by Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the civil rights icon, gained widespread notoriety and support. Ryan ordered up floor action this week on an “anti-terrorism package” including a relatively weak gun control proposal first advanced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX).
The Cornyn plan – which was turned down by the Senate -- would give federal authorities three days to justify blocking a gun sale by demonstrating probable cause the gun or rifle would end up in the hands of a terrorist. It stands in marked contrast to an alternative approach favored by moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and many Democrats that would block the sale of weapons to people whose names are found on “no fly” lists or other government terrorist watch lists.
Prospective gun buyers barred from making purchases could appeal the decision to federal authorities and would qualify for reimbursement of legal fees if they prevail. But it would take the onus off the Justice Department to make the case for barring the sale.
Ryan’s change of heart caught many in his GOP conference by surprise. Over the July 4th holiday break, conservatives began pushing back, fearing the GOP-controlled House would end up going on record in favor of some new form of gun control, which could hurt them during their reelection campaigns this fall. Many conservatives raised concern about violating Americans’ Second Amendment rights to bear arms or their rights to due process.
The House Freedom Caucus, which frequently has had its way in arguments with Ryan and previously with former House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, declared on Wednesday that it would vote as a bloc against the gun proposal unless it’s heavily amended and watered down. On Thursday, as Democrats continued to demonstrate by reading the names of victims of gun violence on the floor of the House, Ryan and other leaders sought to break the impasse with the conservative activists, but to no avail.
With no choice, Ryan indefinitely postponed action on the package of bills, according to Politico, raising serious doubts that anything will be accomplished before Congress adjourns for the Republican and Democratic national conventions later this month. While a few senior Republicans are still holding out hope of working something out before the July 15 recess, prospects seem bleak.
“We want to get this terrorism legislation right," Ryan told reporters on Capitol Hill in trying to put a good face on the delay. "Lots of our members when we posted the bill have given us many suggestions. So we're trying to get this legislation right. We're trying to reflect the consensus of our conference so that we can bring a bill to the floor that deals with this violence, that deals with terrorism, that deals with these issues. And we're not going to rush it. We're going to get it right."