By Jenna Lewinstein (SC ’19)
The year 2017 was the deadliest year of mass shootings in the nation’s history. 2018 has already seen 34 mass shooting incidents, within its first two months. The most notable shooting of 2018 thus far was a school shooting in Parkland Florida that left 17 dead. Despite years of tragic deaths at the hand of guns, Republicans in Congress brought forward a bill that could expand gun rights to make guns even more ubiquitous. While the proposed bill’s fate is undetermined, that it has even enjoyed some legislative progress demonstrates the GOP prioritizes the second amendment rather than exploring the myriad of gun control bills aimed towards reducing gun violence that languish in committee.
H.R. 38, known as the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act of 2017 allows anyone with a concealed carry permit, in their state to bring their weapon into any other state. All states have some variation of concealed carry, which permits citizens to obtain a license to carry a concealed firearm in public. Some states do not require a permit at all, which means gun owners from “no permit” states can carry firearms across all state borders. H.R. 38 passed on Dec. 12, 2017 with a 231-198 vote. The bill’s Senate vote is anticipated to occur in spring 2018. The bill’s sponsor, Representative Hudson, explained the need for the bill in a press release, stating, “our Second Amendment right doesn’t disappear when we cross state lines.” He called his bill “a common sense solution to a problem too many Americans face.”
The bill started in the House Judiciary Committee and was referred to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations, where seven of the nine majority party members are from Southern states where anyone who can legally own a gun can get a concealed carry permit. Anti-gun Democrats on the Committee attempted to add amendments to weaken and gut the bill, but all were defeated due to the Committee’s strong support of gun rights. During the House floor debate, Rep. Thompson (D-CA) moved to recommit with instructions to add an amendment with a background check measure. Reacting to Democratic opposition, two measures were added in the 11th hour that would ensure agencies enter data such as criminal and domestic-violence convictions into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System for gun purchases and require a Justice department ruling on the legality of “bump stocks” which make semi-automatic firearms even more lethal. These additions pulled in measures from H.R. 4434, the Fix NICS Act of 2017, which aims to amend the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act to require federal agencies to disclose records of persons prohibited from having a gun.
In order to become law, the House and Senate need to pass identical bills. In this case, the companion bill to H.R. 38 was introduced to the Senate in February 2017 as S. 334 by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX). For the bill to advance, it would need to get 60 votes. The 52 Republicans would need 8 Democrats to join them, but it is unlikely that they will find them. When asked about the separate measures in December, Sen. Cornyn said, “I support both of the bills, but … when you put them together, it makes it harder … I’m willing to separate those two out.” However, now that the Fix NICS Act was incorporated into the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act, it is likely that Cornyn will not be able to extricate the measures in the Senate.
On Feb. 28, 2018, President Trump told Rep. Scalise (R-LA), the House Majority Whip, that with the combination of the two bills “it’ll never get passed.” When asked about decoupling the two, House Speaker Ryan replied that “the Senate should accept our bill,” and the House GOP leadership stated that they are unwilling to let the Senate’s background check bill stand-alone from reciprocity.
A similar bill was introduced in both the 114th and 113th Congresses in 2017 and 2014, and both times, the bills died in committee. In 2013, a corresponding measure was seen as a further amendment to the the Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act, which also failed to pass. 13 Senate Democrats voted in favor of the measure, but considering the recent escalation of mass shootings and greater party consensus regarding gun control, those who were once in favor are now opposed.
House Democrats cannot do much besides vote no on Republican initiatives. In the Senate, this defensive stance may end up saving Democrats from a loss, as the Republicans would need 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. Since just about one-fifth of Democrats own guns, Democratic lawmakers are not beholden to protecting gun interests and will not cross the aisle for it.
In 2017, Pew Research reported that Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are twice as likely to own a gun. Seventy-eight percent of Democrats polled by Pew Research supported gun control, while only 18% of Republicans support it. In contrast, 79% of polled Republicans support protecting gun rights, even though only about half own guns. When the bill goes to the Senate for a vote, the roll call will likely fall into party lines. The current partisan ideological divide on guns makes it hard to find common ground and pass legislation. Often, Bipartisan measures end up getting added to partisan bills that ultimately fall short, such as the Fix NICS addition to H.R. 38.
Though gun control legislation usually comes to no fruition, this past incident in Florida may lead to real change. The student survivors of the Parkland shooting have entered the political sphere as advocates of gun control and have appeared on television and in a CNN town hall debate. One survivor named Emma González has surpassed and almost doubled the NRA in number of Twitter followers through her numerous and powerful calls for gun reform. Time reported that thousands of students across the country participated in organized walk-outs, protests, and rallies, and are planning even larger events in the near future. Should the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act resurface on the legislative docket, it will be well protested by a new generation of gun control activists.
In sum, Democrats feel that concealed carry reciprocity is a roadblock to actual legislation bolstering gun control through criminal background checks, and House Republicans used a bipartisan measure from Fix NICS as a vehicle to expand gun rights. Unless Republicans can find eight Democrat votes, it is likely that H.R. 38 will be held in the Judiciary Committee and stalled, which would be emblematic of the predictable inaction of Congress on guns.