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Why Minnesota Democrats are optimistic about making progress on guns in Congress

“This is a tipping point, I think,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

A salesman clears the chamber of an AR-15 at the Ready Gunner gun store in Provo, Utah.
REUTERS/George Frey

Democrats have gotten used to failure on gun control. After recent mass shooting events — Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas — Democratic members of Congress have pushed for legislation aimed at curbing gun violence, only to see their efforts go nowhere.

But after the most recent shooting, which claimed the lives of 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida, there’s a sense things might be changing.

“This is a tipping point, I think,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

Fifth District Rep. Keith Ellison said “it feels like something has changed.”

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Fourth District Rep. Betty McCollum spoke of a “broader shift” in the country on guns.

“Having watched things ebb and flow,” said 1st District Rep. Tim Walz, “this one feels different.”

On paper, Democrats have none of the key advantages they had when, for example, Congress failed to pass expanded background checks in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting. Republicans control both chambers of Congress, and a Republican president sits in the White House. The National Rifle Association is as strong as it’s ever been, and support for gun rights remains the number-one concern for millions of voters.

Why, then, are Democrats sounding notes of optimism that something might get done on guns? The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who have emerged as passionate and vocal advocates for expanding gun control, have shaken up the national debate, demanding to know why policymakers have failed to pass gun-related legislation.

Public opinion is shifting on the issue, with recent polling finding that overwhelming majorities of Americans favor stricter gun laws, like universal background checks. And, crucially, some top Republicans, particularly President Donald Trump, have signaled an openness to move forward on some gun control measures.

However, GOP leaders are not rushing to put anything up for consideration — not even a narrow, uncontroversial, and bipartisan measure to strengthen the background check system — meaning that Democrats and gun control advocates might end up with nothing, yet again.

But if a sea change is happening in the U.S. on guns, Democrats are starting to believe that voters might finally begin to punish politicians who do nothing to curb gun violence — something that could deliver them control of Congress, and the chance to pass gun bills.

‘Something has changed’

Beyond the resonance of the Parkland students’ activism, Democrats pointed to the unprecedented fallout from the shooting in corporate America in the last week, as several high-profile companies, like Delta Air Lines and Enterprise, ended their relationships with the National Rifle Association. Gun retailers like Wal-Mart and Dick’s Sporting Goods also voluntarily raised the minimum age at which they sell assault-style rifles to 21.

“All of that stuff is new,” Walz said. “All of that is a different phenomenon… I’ve never seen anything like that.”

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Out of an unpredictable and wild meeting at the White House on Wednesday came more signs that things could change: repeated assurances from President Trump that he’d be willing to back gun control measures that are anathema to his conservative, gun rights-supporting base.

Over the course of an hour, Trump showed interest in dramatically expanding background checks for firearm purchases, suggested wrapping up an assault weapons ban in a gun bill, and said that law enforcement should confiscate the guns of potentially dangerous people and deal with “due process” later. The president also mocked Republican lawmakers for being afraid of the NRA.

Trump’s bipartisan promises, which once delighted Democrats, have repeatedly rang hollow. At a similar meeting in January, Trump said he’d sign anything on immigration, wanted to find a fix for young, undocumented immigrants, and called for a “bill of love.” Two days later, he wondered why so many people were coming to the U.S. from “shithole countries,” and the prospects of an immigration deal tanked.

Klobuchar was at Wednesday’s guns meeting — in a friendly exchange, Trump endorsed “Amy’s” idea of making it harder for certain domestic violence offenders to obtain weapons — and she said she was “surprised by how vehement he was about wanting to do a strong background check bill.”

Klobuchar said the president would be hard-pressed to go back on his repeated, televised support for gun control that was on display on Wednesday. On Thursday night, however, Trump met with top NRA officials at the White House, declaring it later on Twitter to be a “good (great) meeting.”

“A different Donald Trump could show up tomorrow,” Klobuchar said on Thursday afternoon, “but I find it hard to believe he can just back away from that.”

What’s on the table

Even if the president were willing to bypass Republicans and work with Democrats on gun policy, there’s only so much they could do before running into the reality of GOP control of Congress.

During Trump’s back-and-forth on guns, his Republican counterparts in Congress kept trying to steer him back to the party line after he repeatedly strayed to agree with Democrats — underscoring the continued resistance among Trump allies to embrace measures backed mostly by Democrats or a handful of moderate Republicans.

However, in the aftermath of Parkland, lawmakers have identified a few measures that could possibly move with bipartisan support.

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In the U.S. Senate, there are possibly as many as 60 votes for the so-called Fix NICS Act, which would aim to shore up the federal background check system. It would not make the process any more rigorous, but simply gives incentives for federal agencies to do a better job of entering information into the background check system, so that important information about a potential gun buyer — like a past arrest or criminal conviction — is flagged in the system.

To Democrats, this is the lowest of the low-hanging fruit. They are pushing for the Fix NICS legislation to include expanded background check measures like the ones proposed by Sens. Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey, which narrowly failed in the Senate after Sandy Hook in 2013.

“I can’t predict what will happen” on background checks, said Klobuchar, “but that will be the major push.”

Underscoring how hard it is for Congress to act on such a simple step, House Republicans  paired the Fix NICS measure with legislation that would dramatically expand gun owners’ ability to carry concealed firearms. So-called “concealed carry reciprocity,” which would require states to honor a concealed carry permit from another state, like a driver’s license, is a wish-list item for the gun lobby and a poison pill for Democrats, who would not support any bill that includes it.

Beyond background checks, members of both parties have expressed support for banning bump stocks, a device that can be attached to a firearm to make it fire at a faster rate, making it function like an automatic weapon. Trump declared after the Las Vegas shooting that he’d look into bump stocks, but the administration didn’t do anything.

Trump declared he’d be moving to ban them this week, but lawmakers believe an act of Congress would be a stronger move against bump stocks. Yet, there’s no indication that will be taken up.

A ‘political window’ opens

Democrats would welcome any progress on these small-bore measures, and most would rather have something to point to on gun control than nothing. But what is currently on the table only scratches the surface of what most Democrats believe needs to be done.

“At a minimum,” McCollum said, Congress needs to pass “universal background checks that are meaningful, whether you’re purchasing on the internet or at a gun show.”

Ellison said that Congress needs to reinstate the assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004 and was not reauthorized, pass legislation to limit magazines that hold high quantities of ammunition, and allow the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence, something that has effectively been prohibited since the 1990s.

Klobuchar says she supports “doing something” on assault weapons and magazines. “I don’t know if there’ll be the votes for that right now,” she said. “That could change after the election.”

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Democrats are hoping that the 2018 midterms will hand them control of Congress, giving them a chance to pass long-desired gun control measures. But it’s also possible that emphasizing gun control on the campaign trail could help Democrats get back their majorities.

A new poll from National Public Radio finds that 75 percent of Americans believe gun laws should be stricter, up from 68 percent after the Las Vegas shooting in October. Beyond that, 91 percent of poll respondents supported universal background checks, and 72 percent supported a ban on assault weapons.

For gun control advocates, using the issue to mobilize voters in the midterms would represent a major change. For decades, pro-gun positions have won out in Washington because the gun lobby has found success in making support for gun rights a single-issue concern for a significant portion of the conservative voting base.

According to Tim Lindberg, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota at Morris, historically, gun control advocates have struggled mightily to do something similar. Their arguments would resonate strongly after a mass shooting event, but passion in the public would quickly disappear, while conservatives’ vocal support for gun rights remained consistently high.

“There’s a possibility, because we’ve seen the Parkland shooting have more of a long-term effect, that this gets driven into a mobilizing issue rather than just one of the many things Democrats care about,” Lindberg says.

If Republican leadership in Congress does not support, or even entertain, gun control measures, Democrats are beginning to believe that there might be political consequences for them in November’s midterm elections.

“I don’t want to be the politician that refuses to vote the public will now,” Ellison said. “I think if we don’t get responsible about guns, people will punish us for it.”

He previewed Democrats’ pitch to gun-concerned voters on the campaign trail this year: “The Republicans won’t do anything. We will. You vote for us, you’re going to be safer.”

“It feels like there’s a political window that was open that wasn’t open before,” Lindberg says, “that Democrats could use to force Republicans to have uneasy votes, or face big questions in the fall if they’re not willing to consider basic gun control.”