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President Biden pushes for assault weapons ban, but GOP leaders remain opposed

President Biden talks to the press on the South Lawn of the White House before boarding Marine One on March 28 for a trip to Durham, N.C.
Oliver Contreras
/
AFP via Getty Images
President Biden talks to the press on the South Lawn of the White House before boarding Marine One on March 28 for a trip to Durham, N.C.

President Biden is renewing his call on Congress to ban assault weapons in the wake of the school shooting in Nashville, Tenn., which killed three students and three staff members.

The Metropolitan Nashville Police Department said in a statement the shooter was "heavily armed with three guns, two of them assault-type weapons."

"People say, why do I keep saying this if it's not happening?" Biden said, referring to his frequent appeal for such a ban. "Because I want you to know who isn't doing it, who isn't helping, to put pressure on them."

The Nashville incident is the latest in 130 mass shooting incidents so far this year, according to data from the national Gun Violence Archive.

South Dakota Sen. John Thune, No. 2 in Senate GOP leadership, told reporters Tuesday it's "premature" to have discussions on potential legislation in the wake of the attack.

"There's an ongoing investigation and I think we need to let the facts come out," he said.

Senate chaplain urges for more than "thoughts and prayers"

"As a nation, we owe these families more than our prayers. We owe them action," Biden said Tuesday.

His comments echo remarks from the chaplain of the Senate, Barry Black, who opened Tuesday's legislative session by imploring lawmakers to take action in the aftermath of the deadly shooting.

"Lord, when babies die at a church school, it is time for us to move beyond thoughts and prayers," said Black, who has been the Senate chaplain since 2003. "Remind our lawmakers of the words of the British statesman Edmund Burke: All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing."

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, who was shot during a congressional baseball practice in 2017, told reporters on Tuesday he gets "really angry when I see people trying to politicize it for their own personal agenda."

"The first thing in any kind of tragedy that I do is, I pray," he said. "I pray for the victims, I pray for their families."

He said Congress could consider tighter school security procedures and mental health resources.

"The first thing [Democrats] talk about is taking guns away from law-abiding citizens, and that's not the answer," he said.

A familiar uphill battle in a divided Congress

Biden, who has also taken executive action on guns, signed into law last year the first major gun safety legislation passed by Congress in roughly three decades.

The law was the result of bipartisan negotiations after two mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas, that happened within two weeks of each other.

The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act includes incentives for states to pass so-called red flag laws that allow groups to petition courts to remove weapons from people deemed a threat to themselves or others.

The bill also expands background checks on people ages 18-21 and closes the so-called "boyfriend loophole" with a law that prevents people convicted of domestic abuse from owning a gun. The legislation expanded that to include dating partners, rather than just spouses and former spouses.

Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, who was a lead negotiator on that bipartisan gun deal, said Tuesday the focus in the Senate has been on background checks, to prevent those with mental health problems or criminal records from purchasing or possessing firearms.

"That is the area where we've had bipartisan consensus," he told reporters.

"The only thing I hear the administration arguing for is an assault weapons ban, which would mean, I suppose that the 16 million people who own semiautomatic rifles would have to give those up — they'd be confiscated," Cornyn said.

"I don't know what other purpose would be served," he said, adding: "If there's something that can be done while respecting the rights of law-abiding citizens, I'm certainly open to talking about it."

But Cornyn said there weren't any talks with the bipartisan Senate group that crafted last year's package that the president signed, and he cautioned it was too early to know specific details about the shooting in Nashville to propose a specific legislative response.

An assault-style weapons ban doesn't have a political future in the Republican-controlled House or in the Senate, where Democrats have a very narrow majority.

Cornyn said the enhanced background checks of the 2022 legislation is "actually working pretty well."

"The director of the FBI has told us that the national criminal background check system already has stopped the sale of about 100 different gun transactions to juveniles or people purchasing with juvenile records showing they're disqualified by virtue of mental illness or crime," he said.

House Democrats discussed efforts to increase pressure for legislative action at their weekly caucus meeting Tuesday

According to a source present in the meeting, leaders urged members to continue pressing House GOP leaders to take up gun control measures.

South Carolina Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn is reintroducing his bill to close the so-called "Charleston loophole" that allows the sale of a gun even when background check isn't complete.

A group of Democrats — Reps. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, Lucy McBath of Georgia, Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and Jerry Nadler of New York — are calling on House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to schedule a vote on the assault weapons ban that passed the House last year.

"Children should not have to fear for their lives or plan for how to defend themselves against shooters armed with assault rifles. They should not have to plan to play dead, or practice locking themselves in bulletproof rooms, or listen for loud bangs in their hallways," the letter reads. "Teenage survivors shouldn't have to lobby lawmakers to pass commonsense legislation, or demand action in the streets of Washington or the halls of the Capitol. This is not their job. It's ours. And we have failed."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.