Congress Tiptoes Toward Narrow Gun Plan Before Student-Led March

(Bloomberg) -- Congress for the first time in years is poised to vote on gun legislation that represents incremental but symbolically significant steps on an issue that long has divided the nation.

Final action on the measures, which are tucked inside a mammoth $1.3 trillion spending bill, likely will come Friday, just hours before thousands of people are set to march in Washington in support of tougher gun restrictions in response to last month’s deadly mass shooting at a Florida high school.

Congress Tiptoes Toward Narrow Gun Plan Before Student-Led March

One of the provisions would bolster reporting to the federal background checks system for gun purchases. A separate proposal would authorize $75 million this year for school safety training, metal detectors and other infrastructure, and to create systems for anonymous reporting of threats. For further years, it would provide $100 million a year until 2028.

Additionally, a legislative report accompanying the spending bill clarifies that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will have the authority to conduct research on the causes of gun violence -- ending what has been in effect a 22-year ban on such research that has long been backed by the National Rifle Association.

They’re small steps compared to the 1994 assault weapons ban that lapsed in 2004 or the proposals for comprehensive background checks that have been discussed and then shelved in recent years. Yet some of the Capitol’s biggest gun-control advocates marveled at the first legislative response to a fatal mass shooting in years.

‘Changing Fast’

“The politics around guns is changing fast and Republicans are scrambling to catch up,” Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut said in a statement Thursday. He called the measures in the spending bill "good news" but added, "let’s be honest -- the NRA still has veto power over the Republican-led Congress."

The decision to act within the must-pass spending measure could allow Congress to finish work in advance of Saturday’s March for Our Lives event in Washington. That march, and about 800 related events nationwide, are being organized by a group led by students from the Parkland, Florida, high school where 17 students and faculty died at the hands of a former classmate.

A renewal of the the debate on gun control and school safety in Congress immediately after that incident faltered. President Donald Trump sent mixed messages on the issue, suggesting in a bipartisan meeting last month that he would back a series of gun control policies, then backing away after a private dinner with the National Rifle Association’s top lobbyist.

And while there was talk of Senate votes on gun-control measures, there was never agreement on how to proceed and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell showed little interest. Because of the NRA’s ability to rally fervent gun-rights advocates, lawmakers in both parties said it would be nearly impossible to gather support for strict measures.

Church Shooting

The background check provision was proposed by Texas GOP Senator John Cornyn after a mass shooting at a church in his state last year. It provides incentives for federal and state authorities to comply with existing requirements to report criminal records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System that would bar someone from buying a firearm.

The school violence measure would fund creation of anonymous reporting systems for threats of school violence and develop teacher and law enforcement training.

For the gun-rights lobby, the most controversial provision is the language effectively ending the 22-year restriction on CDC research into gun violence. That was put in place in 1996, when Republican Jay Dickey of Arkansas, a self- described NRA “point person,” successfully championed a ban on CDC funding for injury prevention and control that ”may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” The amendment also removed the amount from the CDC’s budget that had been spent on research related to guns the year before.

As a result of the amendment, firearms injury prevention funding from the Centers fell by 96 percent, according to a report published by Mayors Against Illegal Guns. The report also found peer-reviewed research on gun violence fell 60 percent between 1996 and 2010.

Michael R. Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP, which operates Bloomberg News, is a founding member of the mayors group and serves as a member of the advisory board of Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates for universal background checks and other gun control measures.

‘Demonize Firearms’

Groups advocating gun control, including the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, heralded the move to restore the CDC’s ability to conduct such research. But Gun Owners of America blasted the decision, with Executive Director Erick Pratt calling such research “nothing but a smokescreen to demonize firearms.”

The expected congressional action this week is the first legislative response to a mass shooting in the U.S. since the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, when a student suffering from mental illness killed 32 people and wounded 17 others. Congress passed a bill closing loopholes in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System that allowed the student to buy firearms even though a Virginia court had ruled him a danger to himself.

Other major attacks have been met with inaction, beginning with the 1999 attack at Colorado’s Columbine High School. And after shootings in Connecticut, California, Texas and elsewhere, proposals for tougher restrictions on assault weapons sales and better background checks also have fallen by the wayside.

While the decision to include the modest gun measures in the spending bill probably ensures this weekend’s march comes on the heels of some action, the lack of tougher measures means that gun control and gun rights will loom large in the fall midterm elections.

The growing importance of the issue was on display on the Senate floor Wednesday, when new Senator Doug Jones -- the Alabama Democrat who took office after his surprise special-election win in December -- chose to speak on gun control in his first floor speech since taking office. Jones noted he’s a gun owner but called for a series of changes, including expanded background checks, a legislative ban on bump stock devices, a three-day waiting period for gun purchases, and raising the purchasing age for semi-automatic weapons to 21 years old.

"For too long, gridlock and partisanship have stood in the way of compromise," Jones said. "But I didn’t come here to do nothing, and I don’t think any of you did, either."

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