'Bump stocks' just one chip in Congress' partisan gamble on gun control

A legislative response to mass killings is elusive on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers cannot settle on a solution. However, there are lots of alternatives when it comes to potentially curbing gun violence.

Background checks. Banning so-called “bump stocks” or regulating them. Increasing open-carry provisions. Or just leaving things the way they are.

But would any fix the problem?

Taking action on any plan entails compromise. So far, the sides just aren’t willing to do that. And in a paradoxical twist, the butchery in Las Vegas last week may give Republicans the chance to pass controversial firearm legislation of their own, which Democrats vehemently oppose.

Carlos Curbelo

 (Official State Photo)

Let’s start with Rep. Carlos Curbelo, the Florida Republican who is rolling out a ban to bar “bump stocks.”

“After so many years of trying to reach a bipartisan compromise on gun legislation, it looks like we may have a breakthrough here,” Curbelo said recently on the Fox Business Channel.

But closely parse the statement by the National Rifle Association on the “bump stock” issue.

“The NRA believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations,” said the NRA.

At first blush, some perceived the statement as a departure from the NRA’s usual hardline stand. But the group says it may be in order for “additional regulations” for “bump stocks,” not a prohibition.

That’s where the compromise part gets hard.

Would lawmakers like Curbelo -- and probably a host of Democrats -- be willing to compromise on “bump stocks” if it didn’t prohibit them but just imposed more regulations?

Must it be a full-on ban? Would the NRA accept something beyond beefed-up regulations? And as long as we’re talking about “bump stocks,” wouldn’t Second Amendment-defending Republicans insist that Democrats compromise on something, too?

How about permitting expanding concealed carry permits across state lines? What about the sportsman’s bill to make it easier to obtain suppressors and silencers? Isn’t that what compromise in Congress is all about? Accepting half-loaves? Horse-trading?

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. Pelosi is telling colleagues that she wants "all hands on deck" to defeat the latest Republican effort to undo the Affordable Care Act. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

“A background check is a compromise. There are many more things (congressional) members want to do,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “They’re going to say, ‘If you give them a bump stock, it’s going to be a slippery slope.’ I certainly hope so.”

In other words, Democrats would insist on increased gun and accessory regulations beyond “bump stocks.” The NRA may worry that new policies would encroach on what they view as an absolute right on guns. They would argue that if Democrats are going to score some legislative success after the Las Vegas massacre, in which 58 were fatally shot and hundreds of others injured, shouldn’t Republicans get something as well?

“The first response from some politicians has been to call for more gun control. Banning guns from law-abiding Americans based on the criminal act of a madman will do nothing to prevent future attacks,” the NRA statement also said.

The U.S. is now embarking on the most intense conversation on gun violence since the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., in 2012. Yet there are political and parliamentary truths that may again thwart any movement Democrats demand on firearms.

After the murders at Sandy Hook, Pelosi charged Rep. Mike Thompson, a fellow California Democrat, with leading their party’s task force on gun violence.

Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA) speaks at a news conference about the recent shooting in Las Vegas outside the Capitol Building in Washington, U.S., October 4, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein - RC15B6599050

Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA) speaks at a news conference about the recent shooting in Las Vegas outside the Capitol Building in Washington, U.S., October 4, 2017.  (REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein)

Thompson has long been around firearms, serving in the Army during Vietnam. He’s also a hunter and former co-chairman of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus. Yet Thompson’s seen almost zero activity on the gun front since Pelosi tapped him for the task force.

“If this majority believes that a ‘bump stock’ prohibition is enough, they've been smoking something,” Thompson fumed. “It doesn’t even come close.”

But let’s say for a moment that there was legislation on the floor banning “bump stocks.” Would Democrats vote nay because they demand more on guns? What about accepting half a loaf?

“I believe we need to prohibit ‘bump stocks,’ and if that’s the bill that’s in front of me, I’ll vote for that,” Thompson also said.

The NRA is dug in. Republicans control the House and Senate. The NRA is closely-aligned with Republicans. That factor alone could be enough to disrupt any measure from hitting the floor of either body.

“We don’t believe bans have ever worked on anything,” NRA Executive Director Chris Cox on Fox News’ “Fox News Sunday.” “What we have said has been very clear: that if something transfers a semi-automatic to function like fully-automatic, then it ought to be regulated differently.”

Congress could consider gun legislation. But that could come at a “price” for what Democrats are pushing with firearms control. Here’s a look at an incongruous political and legislative reality on guns.

Since June, House Republicans have tinkered a bill to make it easier to obtain “suppressors” that “silence” weapons. There is also a push to ease restrictions on concealed-carry permits across state lines.

So, lawmakers do what lawmakers do: horse trade. Republicans could find some consensus on their side of the aisle on regulation of “bump stocks” -- not an outright ban. And then they throw in the provisions on silencers and concealed carry.

Would Democrats vote for that? Maybe a few would. But Republicans could say they “acted” after Las Vegas and ask why Democrats wouldn’t come along to vote yes. Naturally, most Democrats would find the silencers and concealed carry add-ons as poison pills -- provisions that make the bill too toxic for them to vote aye.

Yet ironically, something on “bump stocks” could make it easier for Republicans to include measures on silencers and concealed carry. Potential “bump stock” regulation actually gives the GOP a sheath of political cover.

Then there’s the Senate. Two rounds of 60 votes are necessary to extinguish a filibuster on legislation. Think a gun bill of any sort -- “bump stocks” or no “bump stocks” -- can score 60 yeas when there are only 52 Republicans in the Senate? Could Republicans make such a vote challenging for moderate Democratic senators facing re-election next year in states where firearms are important? Maybe.

Consider the pressure the NRA could apply to Democratic Sens. Jon Tester, Montanna; Heidi Heitkamp, North Dakota; and Joe Manchin, West Virginia, to name a few.

But that still doesn’t get you to 60 votes. Hence, the gun issue remains in legislative stasis.

This is one reason why Democrats never get anywhere on the gun issue. But, there’s also a daunting political reality facing Republicans on firearms.

President Trump repeatedly berates Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Twitter about eliminating the 60-vote threshold to kill filibusters on legislation. McConnell’s repeatedly resisted this entreaty. But lowering the bar would mean Republicans could muscle through any bill they want -- including something on guns.

Altering the filibuster rules also means this: Democrats could very well draw up firearms legislation that actually gets all 48 of their members on board -- plus a few Republicans.

It’s doubtful the NRA would embrace such a package. But a bill like that could certainly score 51 yeas rather than the 60 needed under current Senate operations.

Moreover, what happens when Democrats again reclaim control of the Senate and Republicans cannot block them on gun bills? Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein, California, and Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, both from Connecticut, could then have their way with far more intrusive gun legislation than is politically possible now.

Pelosi said a few days ago she hopes there’s a “slippery slope” on guns. Dropping the filibuster rule to 51 yeas would certainly grant Democrats the opportunity to do what they want with guns.

Caveat emptor, President Trump.

Solutions to gun violence? Few. Sure lots of alternatives though. And that’s why for now, Congress could again decline to move on gun legislation.