As pressure mounts after string of mass shootings, will Republicans agree to gun reforms?

Thousands of people have been killed by guns in the U.S. so far this year and there have been 216 mass shootings, including in Buffalo and Uvalde. Calls for new gun safety laws often follow these tragedies, but Washington has a long history of failed attempts at such legislation. Reporter Heidi Przybyla, who has for years covered the gun reform debate on Capitol Hill, joins Geoff Bennett to discuss.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    17,556 people have been killed by guns in America so far this year. And there have been 216 mass shootings, including in Buffalo and Uvalde. That's according to the nonprofit gun violence archive. And following these tragedies come calls for new gun safety laws. But Washington has a long history of failed attempts at such legislation.

    Nearly 25 years ago and what was at the time the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, 15 people died, two dozen were injured at Columbine High School.

    Bill Clinton, former U.S. President: The heart and soul of America is on the line.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Lawmakers introduced the Youth Gun Crime Enforcement Act only three weeks after the shooting. The goal was to put in place a mandatory waiting period, background checks and more gun restrictions for people under the age of 18. That bill failed, along with federal legislation to close the so-called gun show loophole, which allows unlicensed dealers to sell guns without background checks. Less than five years later, the federal ban on semi-automatic weapons like AR-15s expired, but both chambers of Congress and the White House at the time were controlled by Republicans and lawmakers never brought the band up for renewal.

    In 2012, the country was shaken by the massacre in Newtown, a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary killed 26 people, 20 of them were just six and seven year olds. Congressional Democrats draft bills to expand background checks and talk stretched on for months but in no deal. Three years later in Charleston South Carolina, a white gunman shot and killed nine black people attending a church Bible study. Democrats proposed closing the so-called Charleston loophole, which allows dealers to complete gun sales of a criminal background check, takes longer than three business days. But Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress at the time, and the legislation went nowhere.

    In 2016, a gunman killed 49 people at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. The Senate was deadlocked just eight days after the shooting on measures to block people on the federal terrorism watch list from buying guns and to close loopholes in background check laws.

    In the following year in October 2017, 60 people were killed by a lone gunman shooting from the 32nd floor of a high rise in Las Vegas, becoming the deadliest mass shooting in America. The shooter used what's called a bump stock, which allows us semi-automatic rifle to fire hundreds of rounds per minute. After a bipartisan effort to ban the devices stalled in Congress, then President Trump eventually banned them through executive actions.

    Then on Valentine's Day in 2018, a former student went into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, and killed 17 people, 14 of them students. Senator Marco Rubio introduced a red flag bill that would let law enforcement restrict gun access for people considered unstable, who could be a threat to others or themselves. Rubio's bill was reintroduced twice in the Senate, but never got a vote on the floor.

    And now as the country witnesses, the second deadliest school shooting in American history, and with polls showing the overwhelming majority of Americans supporting some restrictions on firearms, the question is, is it going to be different this time?

    To help answer that question, we have with us National Political Reporter, Heidi Przybyla, who has for years covered the gun reform debate on Capitol Hill and across the country. It's great to have you with us.

  • Heidi Przybyla, Journalist:

    Thank you, Geoff.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And one of the things that's different about this current moment is that the Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell this past week, said that he encouraged Texas Senator John Cornyn to work with Democrats on hashing out some compromise bill, what are we to make of that?

  • Heidi Przybyla:

    And that is the reason why you see Senator Joe Manchin, who is a battle hardened veteran of these debates say that he is optimistic. McConnell is definitely feeling the pressure as he always does. And the aftermath of these gun massacres. And the true test of this is what happens over the next few days, whether that continues, whether the pressure continues, and he feels it politically, or whether it dissipates because in the end, Geoff, this is going to be a political calculation by Mitch McConnell, about whether it hurts or helps his flock in order to pass this legislation. At the same time, it's important to set expectations here, because what we're talking about here is whether there will be very, very modest reforms and answer to what is really the deadliest school massacre in 10 years.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    To your point, and this is sort of — based on my own reporting to, Democrats and Republicans, it's still early, but they're not talking about an assault weapons ban. They're talking about potentially red flag laws and increasing background checks, right?

  • Heidi Przybyla:

    So those are the two modest reforms that could come over this, right? We saw the gun background check legislation implode in spectacular fashion after Newtown. And it really hasn't gone anywhere since then. Look at that, that's — those are small things, though. They're closing the so called gun show loophole, which is that you can get guns without background checks at some gun shows as well as over the internet, that's number one. Number two are these red flag laws that already exist in about 19 states that is simply allowing states, giving states some grant money to help them to bring in and apprehend individuals who might pose a threat to themselves or to other people that would allow family members or law enforcement to get court orders to get the guns away from those individuals.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    As you know, momentum accounts for a lot in politics. He talked about the passage of time. The Senate is on a pre-scheduled 10 day break. They're not back in town until June 6. I mean, that could really undo a potential deal like this.

  • Heidi Przybyla:

    And that's why it is very instructive to see what the ecosystem around this does. Because — and you and I discussed this previously, Geoff, that what we've seen in the 10 years since Newtown, is that there's this whole new advocacy network like Moms Demand Action, Sandy Hook Promise, the Parkland Kids, they claim to have even more financial backing and be more powerful than the NRA, which let's face it is facing some very serious problems right now financially in terms of corruption. And so does that pressure remain? There will be marches on June 11. Or does the medial eco sphere that all of these members, these 10 Republicans who they're going to need so devoid of that, and so separate from that, that the pressure dissipates on them? Because again, that's what we're talking about here, our 10 Republicans.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    You mentioned the NRA, that organization is nowhere near the powerhouse that it once was. It's not even the powerhouse that some Democrats claim that it is and yet you have so many Republicans who still echo NRA talking points. What accounts for that? What accounts for their poll on the Republican Party?

  • Heidi Przybyla:

    Well, some of it is overstated. When you look at the financial impact because the NRA spreads its money so thinly across so many members that you really can't make the argument. This is about finances rather more about culture, culture in this country. If you look at where some of the biggest divides are, Geoff, it's not red and blue, it's not different socio economics, it is actually gun owning households and non-gun owning households. And so a lot of it is just the cultural. But it's also this misplaced notion that it is political suicide to do anything on guns, which is really a myth. It's been propagated since the Clinton era when the assault weapons ban expired, and they were just too afraid to do anything about it because they'd lost the midterm elections.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Heidi Przybyla, thanks so much for putting this all into context for us. Great to see you.

  • Heidi Przybyla:

    Thanks for having me.

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