It didn’t work after mass shootings at a nightclub in Orlando, college campuses in Virginia and Oregon, a church in Charleston, or at a movie theater and high school in Colorado. Or after two lawmakers survived assassination attempts. But after a gunman killed 58 people and wounded more than 500 at a Las Vegas concert, Democrats are going to try again to revamp the nation’s gun laws.
And some Republicans signaled that this time may be different.
Stunned by the mass carnage caused at a country music festival by one heavily armed gunman and embittered after years of fruitless attempts at gun control, congressional Democrats on Wednesday unveiled new narrowly tailored proposals and revived old ideas to close loopholes or restrict some gun purchases.
The fresh push comes at a fractured moment in American politics, but Democrats believe that the sheer scope of the carnage might make a difference. Some senior Republicans dismissed talk of new gun legislation as insensitive or premature, but ardent Second Amendment supporters said they are at least open to discussing new laws.
Even President Trump might be open to a debate. While he campaigned as a fierce defender of gun rights, this week he said, “We will be talking about gun laws as time goes by.”
As Trump flew aboard Air Force One to Las Vegas to meet with survivors of the shooting, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) unveiled a bill that bans bump fire stocks, devices that can be purchased online for $200 and make semiautomatic weapons fire more like automatic weapons.
At least a dozen of the 23 firearms recovered in Las Vegas were semiautomatic rifles legally modified using bump fire stocks to fire like automatic weapons.
In 2013, after 20 children and six adults were killed in the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut, Feinstein introduced a bill to reinstate a federal assault weapons ban. The measure failed by a wide margin. What Feinstein unveiled Wednesday is drawn from part of her 2013 bill to focus only on fire bump stocks and similar accessories. Hunting accessories would still be permitted.
“The thing is really well-worded, because it’s short, it’s plain-spoken language,” Feinstein explained. “So, everybody will know exactly what’s banned no matter how fancy or how simple the device is.”
She called on regular Americans, “Mr. and Mrs. America, help us. We know the power on the other side. You have to help us.”
Feinstein’s announcement played out like a scene she has staged several times before. Just as most Republicans take cues on national security from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Democrats for decades have turned to Feinstein, whose political career is inextricably tied to gun violence.
Feinstein became San Francisco mayor in 1978 after the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. On Wednesday, she said that her own personal history with gun violence could have become even worse — her grown daughter had planned to attend the country music festival in Las Vegas with friends, but ultimately did not.
“I know what guns can do,” Feinstein told reporters. What transpired in Las Vegas, she said, “is taking it into war.”
Feinstein said she had yet to identify potential Republican co-sponsors, saying she rushed her announcement as word of her plans leaked out.
Senior Republicans indicated that the latest tragedy is not going to change their position.
“I think it’s completely inappropriate to politicize an event like this,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters Tuesday as he declined to answer questions on the subject.
In a Washington Post interview Wednesday, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) — who returned to Congress last week after surviving a shooting in July — agreed. “I think it’s a shame that the day somebody hears about a shooting, the first thing they think about is, how can I go promote my gun control agenda, as opposed to saying, how do I go pray and help the families that are suffering?”
ButSen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the second-ranking Senate Republican, said that hearings on banning bump fire stocks would make sense. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said that a potential ban “is worth having a conversation about, and some of our members agree with that.”
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said the ban is “something I’d be interested in looking at to see if a law change would matter. Would it affect things? I’d be willing to look at that.”
Even some House Republicans who are among the most avid supporters of gun rights said they had not heard of bump stocks before this week.
“This is such a new component to me, I have no idea how it operates, how simple it is,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), who has sponsored numerous bills to expand gun rights, including a recent measure that would partially deregulate silencers. Conversations are underway among conservatives about how to approach the issue.
Others, such as Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), were unmoved: “I’m a Second Amendment man,” he told reporters. “I’m not for any gun control.”
Beyond Feinstein, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a fierce gun control advocate since the Sandy Hook massacre, said Wednesday that he would be reintroducing a plan to close the “default to proceed” loophole that allows gun dealers to sell a weapon after three days if the FBI has not yet completed a background check on the buyer.
Sen. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) also intends to reintroduce a bill to change the national gun background check system. And Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) plans to reintroduce legislation allowing qualified gun owners to use “smart gun” technology that can restrict who can use a weapon.
The National Rifle Association, the nation’s most prominent gun rights organization, did not have immediate comment and has remained publicly silent since Sunday’s mass shooting in Las Vegas.
Complicating the fresh debate for Democrats is their own electoral map next year. Ten Democratic senators face reelection in mostly rural states that Trump easily won. Spokesmen for two of them, Sens. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
A spokesman for Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) said the senator is “looking into it” and thinks the idea “sounds reasonable.” Spokesmen for Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who faces an uphill fight next year in his swing state, and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who is running for reelection in a state that Trump won by 18.5 points, said they will co-sponsor the Feinstein bill.
“The notion that we’re allowing an add-on that allows people to convert a semiautomatic weapon to an automatic weapon — we’ve got to address that,” McCaskill said.
Democrats believe that Trump might also be supportive of gun law changes, citing his past support for gun control measures following the Sandy Hook shooting. In 2012, when President Barack Obama called on Congress to enact new gun control measures in the wake of Sandy Hook, Trump — then a private citizen — tweeted his support.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday that Trump has a “responsibility” to take up the issue.
“In the past, he’s been very reasonable about the gun issue,” he said.
But Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist who now leads the Independent Firearm Owners Association, said that the latest round of debate is likely to focus too much attention on the tools used instead of why people lash out so violently.
“What sucks (to me anyway) is how we allow these bizarre events to focus our attention on the kind of gun, or caliber of gun instead of the person misusing the gun,” Feldman said in an email.
“The only people who care about guns 30 to 60 days after a tragedy are gun owners,” he added, “and gun owners won’t allow the actions of a murderer to dictate the rights of the rest of us.”
Mike DeBonis, Sean Sullivan and David Weigel contributed to this report.