WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 24: Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) (L) arrives to a private meeting with House Republicans on Capitol Hill, March 24, 2017 in...
Drew Angerer

The kind of action on guns 19 House Republicans can endorse

If you only look at headlines, stories like this one in Politico suggest congressional Republicans are starting to buckle under public pressure to act on gun policy.

Nineteen House Republicans on Friday urged House Speaker Paul Ryan to hold a vote on a bill that pushes for stronger background checks on those seeking to buy firearms, a little more than a week after the deadly school shooting in Florida.

“Background checks are the first line of defense in law enforcement’s efforts to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, domestic abusers and those deemed dangerously mentally ill,” Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), one of the signers of the letter to Ryan, said in a statement.

The Washington Post had a similar piece, with a headline that read, “House Republicans push Ryan to hold vote on background-check bill.”

As of Friday, a total of 19 House Republicans – representing about 8% of the House GOP conference – signed the letter to the Speaker requesting a vote. Most are vulnerable incumbents, worried about their re-election prospects, or members who are retiring and less inclined to care about pressure from the far-right.

And while it may seem encouraging to see any Republicans in Congress calling for fresh action on gun policy, when I say the bill in question is the least lawmakers could do, I’m being quite literal.

At issue is a bipartisan measure, crafted months ago by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), which improves the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, often referred to as NICS.

The system already exists, but it’s currently of limited utility: states and federal agencies don’t do nearly enough to voluntarily add information to the NICS. With this in mind, the Cornyn-Murphy bill would take steps to encourage state and federal officials to report relevant criminal infractions into the database.

Is this a worthwhile thing to do? Of course it is. But let’s be honest about the scope of the effort: it’d be a stretch to characterize this as a new gun law. It’s is an extremely narrow effort to make something that already exists less ineffective than it is now.

Or put another way, it’s the sort of thing cautious Republican lawmakers, who keep hearing from constituents about gun violence, might support in order to be able to say, “See? I voted for something.”

My point is not that this is a bad bill. Rather, my point is that this is about as modest a step as Congress could take without literally doing nothing.

At least for now, Paul Ryan’s plans remain unclear. In fact, the GOP-led House already passed this proposal months ago, though House Republicans packaged it with a bill that would make it easier for Americans to carry concealed firearms across state lines, without regard for existing state safeguards. As luck would have it, this happens to be one of the NRA’s top priorities for this Congress.

That version of the bill has no realistic chance of reaching 60 votes in the Senate, which is why those 19 House Republicans are urging the Speaker to return to the issue, this time passing the Cornyn-Murphy proposal the right way.