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Three reasons Congress is still unlikely to pass new gun laws

Here’s why even the deadliest school shooting in a decade probably won’t prompt much change

- May 26, 2022

Despite the deadliest school shooting since the massacre a decade ago of 20 children and six teachers in Newtown, Conn., President Biden and Congress face slim odds of tightening federal gun regulations.

True, Americans broadly support some gun policy proposals. And the Democratic-led House last year sent two bills to the Senate that would tighten the rules for conducting background checks. But Senate rules require a supermajority of 60 votes to cut off debate on most proposals, making it hard, in an evenly divided senate, to swiftly pass major changes — even with 19 children and two teachers dead in Uvalde, Tex.

Here’s why the legislative path ahead remains rocky.

Attention is fleeting

Roughly half of Americans favor stricter gun laws, including proposals such as banning assault weapons or creating a federal database to track gun sales. But support for tightening background checks is near universal: Overwhelming supermajorities of Democrats and Republicans support expanding background checks and preventing people with mental illnesses from purchasing guns.

But strong public support is not enough to force Congress to act. Intense media focus on the tragic deaths in Uvalde will soon fade. Economist Anthony Downs called this the “issue attention cycle”: A dramatic event like a shooting attracts reporters’ attention, provokes a great deal of coverage, and then fades from view when the news media move on to the next big event. What’s more, public pressure for change typically fades as well, letting opponents off the hook.

For lawmakers to harness public interest, Congress would need to act soon. But legislative time moves slowly. This time, legislators are due to leave town on Thursday for a 10-day Memorial Day break. House Democratic leaders announced lawmakers will vote on a “red flag” bill after their June 6 return to Washington — a measure that would empower family or law enforcement to temporarily prevent someone dangerous to others or themselves from securing firearms. In response, one House freshman urged the House to come back to vote this week.

To be sure, Congress could act in June. But the Uvalde tragedy will likely have slipped from the headlines, lessening public pressure to act.

The parties are intensely divided

Legislators used to be far less polarized on gun laws by party, with GOP voters supporting gun regulations at higher rates than they do today. Even as recently as 1993, a sliver of Senate Republican votes helped to pass a 10-year ban on semiautomatic weapons, which several Southern conservative Democrats opposed.

Today, parties take opposite stands on most gun policy proposals. True, four Republicans crossed the aisle in 2013 to support a compromise measure by Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.V.) and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) to tighten up background checks. And Congress by bipartisan votes in 2018 bolstered state and federal reporting of criminal histories to a national background registry. But those are exceptions that prove the rule: There’s little common ground between the parties on most proposals.

Keep in mind that overwhelming public support for tightening gun laws is limited to just a few measures. Proposals like renewing the assault weapons ban attract over 80 percent of Democrats but barely a third of Republicans. And while two-thirds of Republicans want to arm teachers in secondary schools, just a quarter of Democrats agree. What’s more, gun owners — more likely to be Republicans than Democrats — are especially opposed to tightening gun laws and more likely to vote solely on this issue than gun-control supporters. Such activism stems in part from NRA tactics, whose political appeals for decades have aimed at cultivating its members’ identities as gun owners threatened by regulation.

Senate rules increase the power of GOP opposition to tightening gun policies. Absent 60 votes to end debate to advance or adopt a measure, Republicans can — and typically will — filibuster measures opposed by the NRA. Even near-universal public support for some gun regulations isn’t enough, at least so far, to overcome GOP fealty to organized opposition back home.

Send a message or write a law?

Democrats face a choice after Uvalde: Message or negotiate. The Senate majority often puts a matter to a floor vote to grab the media’s spotlight, send a message to voters, force senators to take a side and raise money for their campaigns. This time, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has put aside for now such “accountability” votes, saying, “This isn’t a case of the American people not knowing where their senators stand. They know.”

Instead, Schumer threw his backing to Democratic colleagues who prefer a law to a message. Democrats are certainly aware of the very long odds of securing 10 GOP votes for a compromise measure. And weeks could pass before negotiators even get to the bargaining table, by which time the media’s attention will surely have moved on.

But Democrats who have tried to improve background check rules in the past (such as Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Manchin) are eager to engage amenable Republicans to try again. Messaging first, Murphy acknowledged, would provoke a filibuster — putting any chance of negotiations out of reach.