Politics & Government

Congress gets back to business by setting gun control talk aside

If mass shootings are becoming routine in the U.S., so too, is the response from congressional Republicans.

Even as he stood Tuesday between one colleague still relying on crutches for injuries sustained in a June shootout at a congressional baseball game and another who lost three constituents in the Las Vegas shooting, House Speaker Paul Ryan made it clear Republicans aren't interested in gun control measures.

The House is focused this week on passing a budget, the Wisconsin Republican said, so that it can more easily move a tax reform package.

"We think that's one of the most important things we can do to improve people's lives," Ryan said of taxes. “That is our present focus."

He stood between House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., who attended his first GOP caucus since being wounded in the June shooting, and House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who paid tribute to three Californians who were killed and two injured when Stephen Paddock late Sunday opened fire from his hotel room 32 stories above a country music festival. Paddock killed 59 and wounded more than 500.

Neither lawmaker mentioned gun legislation.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell chided reporters for asking about ways to cut down on the availability of lethal weapons like the one used by the Las Vegas shooter.

Too soon, the Kentucky Republican said.

"I think it's particularly inappropriate to politicize an event like this," McConnell said, noting the investigation into the shooting is still ongoing. "It’s entirely premature to be discussing legislative solutions, if there are any."

Most Republicans have long been loathe to embrace gun control legislation, arguing that it’s a violation of the Second Amendment that guarantees Americans a right to own guns. Critics maintain the GOP is too close to the powerful gun lobby, including the National Rifle Association.

The issue, said Republicans Tuesday, is not one involving the law because there’s no government fix for evil.

“Obviously the guy broke a whole bunch of laws, so I don’t know that more laws are going to fix a problem,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who chairs the influential conservative House Freedom Caucus.

He said mental illness and other factors are likely to blame. “Does it prompt a gun control debate? I don’t think so.”

Then there’s the familiar Republican argument: “I don’t think you can take guns away from good people,” said Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, who was himself briefly on crutches after being injured at the at the Virginia baseball game and was injured when the gunman opened fire on lawmakers.

The Vegas shooter, Williams said, “would have had his guns no matter what. Bad guys get stuff. If you disarm our country, that’s not the way to go.”

There could be one legislative legacy — the shooting may have slowed some pro-gun legislation. Ryan has, at least for now, shelved a bill that includes a measure to make it easier to buy noise suppressors to dampen the sound of gunshots. The House had been poised to consider a bill aimed at supporting hunters, fishers and anglers, but it’s not on the schedule, Ryan said.

There won’t be another result, though, that Democrats saw as easy to implement. House Democrats have asked Ryan for a bipartisan committee to study ways to reduce gun violence, but have been told no.

A few rank and file Republicans said they'd be open to talking about fixes, including Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who tried a bipartisan approach after elementary school children were shot to death in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012.

Toomey said he had not yet spoken to his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., about reviving the background check legislation the two lawmakers championed in 2013, but expected they would talk soon.

In the House, Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., said he may revisit legislation that he introduced last year, after the 2016 shooting at the Pulse night club in Orlando, to deny the sale of firearms to any individual whose name appears on the federal government’s “no-fly” list.

“Let’s figure out what happened, if any of the laws failed, if any of the systems we have in place failed and once families have time to grieve and we get all the facts, then we do need to have a discussion in this Congress about sensible gun control,” Curbelo said. “We have to support and respect the Second Amendment and the Bill of Rights. That’s sacrosanct in this country, but sure we should have a conversation here.”

Yet responses by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, who backed the “no-fly” measure last year, underscored just the difficulty such legislation faces. Unlike the shooter in Orlando, the Vegas gunman did not have ties to radicals. He likely obtained his firearms legally. He doesn't appear to have had a record of mental illness or criminal activity.

"I don't think this is a problem a law is going to fix by itself," Graham told reporters.

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who has co-sponsored legislation to broaden background checks, wasn’t convinced such measures would have made a difference. “Apparently he did everything legally,” King said of Paddock. “Let’s wait. To me it’s wrong to be jumping out, trying to politicize a tragedy. At least wait a few days and see what happens.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said he hopes his fellow New Yorker, President Donald Trump, will “break from the NRA” and work with Democrats, as Trump did recently on budget matters.

But Trump, asked Tuesday whether Las Vegas would prompt him to embrace gun control, instead praised police for their response.

“Look, we have a tragedy. What happened is, in many ways, a miracle,” Trump said. “The police department, they’ve done such an incredible job. And we’ll be talking about gun laws as time goes on. But I do have to say, how quickly the police department was able to get in was really very much of a miracle. They’ve done an amazing job.”

Emma Dumain and Brian Murphy of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark