File Photo: Rhino 500 handguns are on display at the National Rifle Association (NRA) Annual Meetings and Exhibits on April 14, 2012 in St. Louis, Missouri.
Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images, File

Stage set for major Senate showdown on gun policy

This week offered a dramatic Democratic filibuster on gun reforms. Next week will offer the results of the Senate Dems’ efforts.
The Senate will vote on four gun control measures Monday after being prodded by a 15-hour filibuster in the wake of the shooting massacre at a Florida nightclub.
 
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, filed cloture motions Thursday on four gun-related amendments to a spending bill, a day after Democrats ended their filibuster to force some sort of action on gun restrictions.
Democrats, who’ve struggled to get gun-related bills onto the Senate floor since Republicans took control over the majority, demanded votes on two measures, which GOP leaders accepted as part of an agreement to end Wednesday’s filibuster. But Republicans are packaging these two votes with two amendments of their own on the same issue.
 
To clear the chamber, each will need 60 votes. There are 46 Senate Democrats. (For context, note that the bipartisan background-check bill considered after the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre received 54 votes in a Democratic Senate in 2013, while the terror-watch-list bill received 45 votes two years later.)
 
Any measure approved by the Senate would face fierce resistance in the GOP-led House.
 
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What exactly will senators be voting on when the chamber reconvenes on Monday?
 
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who led this week’s filibuster effort, will offer an amendment expanding background checks to cover guns sold at gun shows and through online dealers.
 
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) will offer an amendment that would improve federal databases to “ensure law enforcement officials are notified if a person under investigation for terrorism in the past five years tries to buy a gun.”
 
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) will offer an amendment – which enjoys the NRA’s backing – that would “create a waiting period” for those on terror watch lists before they could purchase a gun. The same proposal would require the government to go to court and prove that there’s probable cause to block that purchase.
 
And then there’s Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who’s putting forward a new version of her bill on terror watch lists. Vox had a good overview on her proposal yesterday, noting just how expansive it is.
[O]ne change that would put more people under additional scrutiny, and one that would give the government the power not just to scrutinize them but to block their gun purchase.
 
Under current law, the FBI is already notified whenever someone on a “known or suspected terrorist” list (drawn from existing terrorism databases) tries to purchase a gun. Under Feinstein’s legislation, they would also be notified of a gun purchase attempt by anyone who’s under investigation for terroristic activity – or who has been investigated anytime in the past five years. […]
 
Once someone was flagged, the government would then have the power to veto gun purchases on terrorism grounds – a power it doesn’t have right now. But to block the sale, the government would have to have reasonable suspicion that the person represented “a threat to public safety” and was considering or engaging in terrorist activities.
And what about those who may have been investigated at some point in the previous five years, but who faced no charges and believes the investigation was unwarranted?
 
The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent posed this to Feinstein’s office yesterday. A spokesperson for the senator replied, “Under the amendment, an individual denied a gun would have the ability to learn the reason for the denial. That individual could then appeal the decision administratively with the Justice Department. If necessary, the individual could also sue the Justice Department. This appeals process mirrors the appeals process for other individuals who believe they have wrongly been denied guns.”
 
It’s likely civil libertarians will consider this process a bridge too far.
 
In case this weren’t quite complicated enough, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who co-sponsored an expanded background-check bill in 2013, is pushing an alternative to Feinstein’s plan that would have the Justice Department submit a list of suspects to the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The court would then review the list, identify those it considers a potential threat, and only those individuals could be blocked from legal gun purchases.
 
I won’t try to predict the outcome of the votes, but it’s a safe bet Monday’s floor debates are going to be worth watching.
 
 

Chuck Grassley, Dianne Feinstein, Gun Policy, John Cornyn and NRA

Stage set for major Senate showdown on gun policy