Complete the dang fence? Not a problem. Complete a background check? Not so fast. That seems to be the battle cry from conservative House members, faced with the prospect of tackling two politically unpalatable issues—immigration reform and gun control—in the infant stages of the 113th Congress.
Legislatively speaking, these looming policy fights have plenty in common. Both are long-simmering political squabbles that have rocketed to the top of Washington’s agenda since the close of the last Congress. Both are viewed with tremendous suspicion by the Republican base. Both are being taken up first in the Senate, where they will endure a gantlet of obstructionism. And, if they do clear the Senate, both would be debated in the House Judiciary Committee, where conservative members dominate. (Nineteen of the panel’s 23 Republicans belong to the Republican Study Committee, a subgroup tasked with steering the GOP’s policy agenda to the right.)
But there’s one important difference, at least as far as conservative House Republicans are concerned: One of these problems is theirs to solve; the other is not. In conversations with these lawmakers, it’s readily apparent that while they are open to overhauling the nation’s leaky immigration system, such amenability doesn’t extend to gun-related measures. Conservatives were quick to attribute this splinter to their core federalist philosophy; they said that one issue (immigration) is a national problem requiring federal action while the other (gun violence) is a narrower predicament more appropriately addressed at the state and local levels. “Immigration is something that is mandated for federal control under the Constitution, whereas the Second Amendment provides protection from the federal government infringing on gun ownership,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, an outspoken conservative and a Judiciary member.
Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who chairs the RSC, said gun control simply does not fall within the federal government’s purview, comparing it to other policy areas that conservatives say Washington has no business legislating. “Education, for example, is handled best at the local level,” Scalise said, arguing that states and districts should design their own security measures, just as they craft their own curricula. “Every local school board, I’m sure, is looking at their own security plan—and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. If the federal government tries to put a one-size-fits-all law into place, it’s not going to work.”
This “Federalism 101” argument, as one House Republican aide framed it, allows conservatives to define their opposition to gun control as philosophical instead of ideological. More important, it provides cover for Republicans facing an obvious political reality: These issues are separate but not equal. GOP lawmakers—even those opposed to an immigration overhaul—realize that ignoring the issue would undermine their outreach to Hispanic voters and aggravate what has become an existential threat to the party in presidential races. At the very least, they have to play ball. They have no similar incentive for being proactive on gun control; in fact, it’s just the opposite. Republicans know that tinkering with the Second Amendment is a high-risk, low-reward endeavor that has minimal support among their constituents and could easily result in a primary challenge from the right.
Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, one of Congress’s most conservative Republican members, embodies this political dichotomy. He argued that gun control is “one of those things that should be left to state governments,” adding: “If there is any sort of effort to push further regulations, ... that should start at the state level, not the federal level.” But in the next breath, Amash, a libertarian agitator who opposes Washington overreach, acknowledged that America’s immigration system is broken, and he prescribed federal action for fixing it. “There seems to be a lot of momentum behind immigration reform,” Amash said, counting himself among a growing group of conservatives who are coming around to the idea. “I think something substantial will pass out of the House at some point during this term.”
Not all conservatives agree that gun control sits fully outside congressional jurisdiction. Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia, another RSC disciple and self-described “lifetime NRA member,” recently cosponsored bipartisan legislation aimed at outlawing “straw purchasing”—the act of obtaining weapons for people who cannot legally make the purchase themselves. Rigell’s measure, which would render such firearm trading a federal offense, seems to have lukewarm early support from conservatives, who have said that interstate trafficking is the one area where Congress should legislate.
Still, even Rigell has said he’s uncomfortable with the idea of universal background checks, which has emerged as President Obama’s primary gun-related objective. Rigell’s resistance to the most modest item on Obama’s gun-control agenda suggests that nothing the president has prescribed will clear the House floor—if it even gets that far. Indeed, if there is a consensus among House conservatives, it is this: Any gun-related legislation will likely die an ugly death in the House Judiciary Committee.
“The Second Amendment protects the right to bear arms,” said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a member of that panel. “And I think anything we do here at the federal level would violate that.”
This article appears in the Feb. 16, 2013, edition of National Journal as Picking Their Poison.