Federal Legislation – Wave of Violence Reignites Debate on Guns

Darryl Nirenberg
Partner
Eva Rigamonti
Associate
Patrick Northrup
Legislative Assistant
Steptoe & Johnson LLP

As members of Congress returned to their districts for the August congressional recess and presidential candidates flocked to the Iowa State Fair, the country was shaken by a series of attacks. Gun violence directed toward civilians and law enforcement alike swept the country in July and August, bringing tragedy to communities and families while upending a political world that had gone dormant during the recess.

Debates over gun violence erupted and mixed with mourning across the country. Victims, politicians and ordinary people across America joined in a national discussion of what federal lawmakers can and should do to stem the tide of mass shootings, massacres and attacks on police. Very little consensus exists, other than that something must be done to prevent the next tragedy, and Washington must be a part of the solution.

Tragedies in Gilroy, El Paso
and Dayton

In the span of one week in late July and early August, mass shootings in three states — Gilroy, California; El Paso, Texas; and Dayton, Ohio — left 36 people dead, including two of the alleged perpetrators. In each incident, a man armed with a semi-automatic, military-style rifle opened fire on vulnerable crowds without warning, shooting indiscriminately at innocents.

In each case, law enforcement was on the scene in seconds or minutes, engaging the shooter and preventing further loss of life.

These shootings sparked calls for stricter restrictions on who is allowed to purchase and possess a firearm, as well as the types of assault weapons used in all three shootings. In addition, the shootings focused attention on the growing specter of white supremacist domestic terrorism. The perpetrator in El Paso explicitly couched his attack in the language of racism, and there appears to be links to white supremacist ideology in the Gilroy shooter’s motivations as well.

In response, Attorney General William Barr made it clear that the Department of Justice was committed to working with law enforcement officers, the first level of defense, to fight this evolving threat. However, some politicians, such as South Bend, Indiana, Mayor and Democratic candidate for president Pete Buttigieg, went further, calling for an initiative to begin dealing with domestic terror groups the way the U.S. deals with foreign terror groups.

Shootout in Philadelphia

On August 14, a shooting of a different kind occurred, as law enforcement officers in the city of Philadelphia were fired on by a heavily armed gunman when attempting to serve a warrant. Hundreds of shots were fired in the ensuing eight-hour standoff, and six police officers were injured, although all have since been released from the hospital. The suspect, 36-year-old Maurice Hill, eventually surrendered and was taken into custody. As a convicted felon, Hill should not have been allowed to be in possession of the firearms he used during his attack.

The attack has triggered a discussion on the topic of gun reform, specifically on how a convicted felon like Hill was able to obtain a weapon, but also on the broader issue of violence against police. Halting the recent outburst of anti-police violence is one of PORAC’s top priorities, and we are working to address this subject in Washington.

Then-Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross later said it was “nothing short of a miracle” that multiple officers weren’t killed in the incident. Philadelphia’s mayor, Jim Kenney, echoed this sentiment and voiced support for reform, stating that law enforcement officers “deserve to be protected and they don’t deserve to be shot at by a guy for hours with an unlimited supply of weapons.”

Federal Action on Guns?

The rash of violence led to nearly unanimous calls for some degree of action to remove weapons from the hands of those most likely to commit violent acts. Many came from presidential candidates, eager to establish themselves as engaged on the issue. Others came from leaders in the affected communities, such as the previously mentioned mayor of Philadelphia, who lamented the challenges law enforcement endures in the face of widely available firearms. Members of the public made up the majority of the calls to action, as polls show support for gun control rising to previously unthinkable levels. For instance, according to a Fox News poll conducted after the spate of shootings, support for certain gun control measures is up to nine out of 10 Americans.

Additionally, many responses came from members of Congress. But, as in most cases when an issue comes to the attention of Congress, opinions differed, diverged and splintered along partisan and ideological lines. However, despite serious differences, a number of different proposals stood out and have garnered some amount of support.

  • Red Flag Laws — Some Republicans have coalesced around a set of proposals that would encourage states to pass red flag laws: laws which would allow courts, when petitioned by family members or law enforcement, to temporarily ban individuals who pose a significant risk to themselves or others from
    possessing firearms. Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.) is among those spearheading a bipartisan push, and appears to have some support from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.), as well as President Donald Trump. A recent Fox News poll showed that 81% of the public supports similar measures. While many Democrats also support these laws, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.) called settling for red flag laws a “tepid” response to gun violence that would not go far enough.
  • Universal Background Checks — Instead, Senator Schumer indicated Democratic support for red flag laws in conjunction with laws to establish universal background checks and close loopholes that allow buyers to remain unscreened when purchasing firearms from another private individual. A universal background checks bill, H.R. 8, passed in the House in February with some limited bipartisan support. While many Senate Republicans have resisted the measure, Senator Pat Toomey (R–Pa.) is working with Senator Joe Manchin (D–W.Va.) to introduce a Senate version of a universal background check law. Additionally, President Trump has indicated his support for stronger background check laws and has claimed that Senate Republicans share his views. The Fox News poll mentioned above found that 90% of Americans support a background check for all gun sales.
  • A Ban on Assault Weapons — The most controversial proposal, which is also the least likely to be enacted into law, is to bring back the ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004. The proposed bill, H.R. 1296, has significant Democratic support in the House, and a renewal of the ban is also supported by Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden. However, that same House bill has no Republican cosponsors, has been opposed by Senator McConnell in the past and is extremely unlikely to move forward. Notably, the same Fox News poll that found a staggering rate of support for background checks and red flag measures found that 67% of Americans support a ban.

At the time this issue went to print, Majority Leader McConnell had steadfastly refused to pull the Senate back from recess to consider gun control legislation, despite calls to do so from many Democrats. However, McConnell has vowed to put the issue at the forefront of the agenda when the Senate returns in September and focus on two gun control measures in particular: the red flag law legislation and a bill for universal background checks.

But, as the last several years and failed attempts at reform have proved, there are no sure things when it comes to gun control in Congress.