© 2024 Michigan State University Board of Trustees
Public Media from Michigan State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A Familiar, Partisan Response In Congress To Las Vegas Massacre

The Peace Monument stands in front of the U.S. Capitol where an American flag flies at half-staff following a mass shooting in Las Vegas late Sunday that killed over 50 people.
Mark Wilson
Getty Images
The Peace Monument stands in front of the U.S. Capitol where an American flag flies at half-staff following a mass shooting in Las Vegas late Sunday that killed over 50 people.

Updated at 5:10 p.m. ET

A horrific shooting in Las Vegas is prompting fresh calls from Democrats on Capitol Hill to pass stricter gun laws, but the Republican majority has made clear that cracking down on gun rights is not on the agenda.

Congress has not made a concerted effort to pass gun legislation since 2013, when the Senate tried and failed to overcome GOP opposition to expand background checks for gun purchases. The legislative push by Democrats was in response to the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut that left 20 children and six adults dead.

Since then, Republicans have won control of the Senate, expanded their House majority, and won the White House — a political reality that has bolstered the GOP argument that tougher gun laws are not a solution to the nation's familiar problem of mass shootings, as well as efforts to ease gun restrictions.

The portion of Americans who have guns in their homes is at a high of 48 percent, according to an August 2017 survey by NBC News/Wall Street Journal. More Americans say they are worried the government will go too far in restricting gun rights (50 percent) than worry it will not do enough (45 percent). That's compared to 38 percent who worried the government would go too far in the same survey in 1995.

Still, top Democrats on Monday revived calls to use this tragedy as a catalyst for gun legislation. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., urging the creation of a select committee to examine the nation's gun laws and report back with recommendations for changes, as well as for a vote on legislation to expand background checks. "The epidemic of gun violence in our country continues to challenge the conscience of our nation," Pelosi wrote.

"To my colleagues: your cowardice to act cannot be whitewashed by thoughts and prayers. None of this ends unless we do something to stop it," tweeted Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who has become one of the most vocal advocates for gun control legislation in Congress. He was a member of the House in 2012, and the Sandy Hook massacre took place in his district at the time.

Some Democrats seemed to tacitly acknowledge that gun legislation is a nonstarter, with many lawmakers offering statements that offered condolences but no formal calls for action.

Many on the left remain frustrated that some gun control measures were not able to pass in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, despite the fact that broad bipartisan majorities support them. The Pew Research Center published polling earlier this yearshowing that at least three-quarters of Democrats and Republicans support laws to prevent the mentally ill from obtaining weapons, preventing people on federal no-fly or watch lists from purchasing firearms, and requiring background checks for private purchases, such as those at gun shows.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has been an author and champion of legislation to ban certain high-capacity firearms, but in a statement Monday did not renew prior calls to pass her legislation. "It should shock every American that one individual, with easy access to weapons and ammunition, can inflict such devastation," Feinstein said a statement that only called for Congress to "work together to prevent such tragedies from happening again."

The speaker ordered flags to half-staff at the U.S. Capitol in memory of the victims. Ryan, an avid hunter, is a gun-owner and like most Republicans has argued that tougher gun laws are not the answer. The GOP has focused on mental health legislation as the proper response to mass shootings. A December 2016 bill signed in to law included some of the most expansive new mental health laws in nearly a decade.

Republicans have offered condolences but no calls for any specific legislative action. Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., who was shot in June during a congressional baseball practice and returned to work last week, released a statementcondemning the "pure evil" act. Scalise urged the nation to "respond with countless acts of kindness, warmth and generosity."

GOP action on guns so far this year has focused on expanding gun rights.

As one of his first actions in office, President Trump overturned an Obama-era regulation that had not yet gone into effect that was aimed at limiting gun access from certain people adjudicated mentally ill.

House Republicans are trying to advance two pieces of gun legislation this year to ease restrictions on guns. The first would make it easier to purchase gun silencers, which advocates say will prevent hearing loss by law-abiding gun owners. There is also a proposal to nationalize concealed-carry laws to let permit holders travel more easily from state to state.

Neither bill has been scheduled for a floor vote, and neither are likely to become law this year. The bills do not have the 60-votes needed to overcome an anticipated Democratic filibuster in the Senate.

Politically, Democrats would likely need supermajorities in the House and Senate and control of the White House to have a chance at enacting the kind of sweeping gun policy overhaul advocated by the likes of Pelosi and Murphy.

Republicans note that when Democrats did enjoy that kind of one-party dominance in Washington — during the first two years of former President Barack Obama's administration — they took no major action to pass tougher gun legislation.

Asked at Monday's press briefing if Trump was considering whether to pursue any changes to gun regulations, press secretary Sarah Sanders said, "There's a time and place for a political debate, but now is the time to unite as a country." She added that the investigation was ongoing, "and it would be premature for us to discuss policy when we don't fully know all the facts or what took place last night."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
Journalism at this station is made possible by donors who value local reporting. Donate today to keep stories like this one coming. It is thanks to your generosity that we can keep this content free and accessible for everyone. Thanks!