Red-State Democrats Wary of Gun Measures

Following the Parkland shooting, a number of gun-control ideas are percolating on Capitol Hill. But the most vulnerable Senate Democrats are showing caution.

Sens. Joe Donnelly, Jon Tester, and Joe Manchin
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Feb. 26, 2018, 8:33 p.m.

In the aftermath of another horrific mass shooting, the killing of 17 people at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Democrats in Congress proposed a simple solution: Raise the age of rifle purchasers from 18 to 21 years old. The proposal would have banned the Parkland shooter, who was 19 years old, from legally purchasing the AR-15 he wielded.

But even though President Trump appears to be on board, Democratic proponents have so far failed to sway some of the most influential voices in the debate: their fellow Democratic senators up for reelection in red states in 2018.

In interviews on Monday, some of those senators either ducked questions or ran to Trump for cover. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana said he’d need to take a deeper look at it. Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana referred reporters’ questions to his press office, which did not respond for comment. And Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who spent a lot of political capital during the past five years trying to expand gun background checks, said he needed to hear what Trump believed.

Congress has long failed to pass gun-control measures after such tragedies. And passing any gun-control legislation will be especially difficult in this Congress, controlled by Republicans in both the House and the Senate who are wary of doing anything limiting access to guns.

After reports emerged that the Parkland shooter was 19 years old and had legally purchased an AR-15, Sen. Dianne Feinstein said she would introduce a bill to require all firearms purchases from gun dealers to be restricted to individuals who are at least 21 years old. “If you can’t buy a handgun or a bottle of beer, you shouldn’t be able to buy an AR-15,” Feinstein said in a statement more than a week ago. In the days since, GOP Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Pat Roberts of Kansas, and Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott, have all backed raising the age requirement. And last week, Trump appeared to be in favor of it before his press office said he was in “listening mode.”

“I will be strongly pushing Comprehensive Background Checks with an emphasis on Mental Health,” the president tweeted. “Raise age to 21 and end sale of Bump Stocks! Congress is in a mood to finally do something on this issue - I hope!”

Of all the Senate Democrats from red states up for reelection in 2018, Manchin has been the most aggressive on the gun-control issue. In 2013, after 20 children and six adults were slaughtered by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, he teamed up with Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who also had an A-rating from the National Rifle Association, to try to pass a bill expanding background checks to include online sales and gun shows. They failed twice in the past five years, under both a Democratic and Republican Senate.

Now, Manchin has reportedly vowed to reintroduce the bill only if it receives the support of the president, who he views as uniquely capable to pass gun-control legislation. When the senator was asked whether he supported another measure gaining approval among Democrats and some Senate Republicans—raising the minimum age for rifles like the AR-15—Manchin told National Journal on Monday, “It depends on where the president seems to be.”

In yielding to the president on a burning cultural issue, Manchin is aligning himself with a man who won his state by over 40 points in 2016—a state that has debated several bills in the past month to weaken gun restrictions, including one bill to force public colleges and universities to allow people to carry concealed guns on campus.

In an interview, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner said that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has placed some Democrats in a dilemma: whether to try to please their core base or the broader public in their states.

“I think it’s a very risky line that Senator Schumer is taking, where it sounds like he’s going full-bore gun control,” Gardner said. “That’s going to be a significant challenge for anyone who [represents] a state that Donald Trump won.”

The Senate GOP leadership is looking for a much narrower approach. Sen. John Cornyn, the Republican whip, has cosponsored a bill with Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy to improve the existing background-check system by introducing greater incentives for federal agencies and states to upload information into the system. The bill is backed by everyone from Schumer to the National Rifle Association.

On Monday, Schumer pointed to recent public polling showing universal background checks as overwhelmingly popular. He said his caucus would discuss policies this week that “we believe will most effectively curb the uniquely American epidemic of gun violence.” But he didn’t mention the proposal to raise the minimum age on rifle purchasers.

“Democrats believe that, at the very least, in the wake of Parkland, we should strive for comprehensive background checks—closing the loopholes that allow anyone, regardless of a violent history or a history of mental illness, to walk into a gun show or go on the internet and purchase a gun,” Schumer said. “More than 90 percent of Americans and the vast majority of gun owners support comprehensive background checks. What are we waiting for?”

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