Democrats’ effort to force gun votes fizzles in House

A Democratic strategy to move tougher gun laws through the House has hit a brick wall of GOP opposition, all but guaranteeing the hot-button issue will be relegated to the realm of campaign messaging in the Republican-led lower chamber.  

Democratic leaders had launched procedural maneuvers last month designed to force votes on several gun reform measures over the objections of GOP leaders. The gambit, known as a discharge petition, is rarely successful. But supporters had hoped the effort would bear fruit this year given the growing public outcry over endemic mass shootings and the widespread popularity of proposals like expanded background checks, one of which is sponsored by a Republican. 

But even that GOP lawmaker, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.), has refused to endorse the petition, citing the likelihood that the background check bill would fail in the Senate. The unanimous Republican opposition has highlighted the limited powers of the House minority, the reluctance of GOP moderates to confront their leadership publicly, and the polarizing nature of the debate over guns, which remains highly partisan despite shifting attitudes outside of Congress.

It has also frustrated reform advocates on and off Capitol Hill who are furious that Republicans have refused to address gun violence even as it’s evolved to become the leading cause of death for children in the United States. 

​​“It’s an extraordinary time, and we need extraordinary people stepping up,” Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) said. “You know there’s another mass shooting coming. So will that be the mass shooting that finally allows these guys to do what’s right?”

The Democrats’ discharge petitions attempt to compel votes on three separate gun reform bills: an assault weapons ban; expanded background checks before gun sales; and the adoption of a longer window for authorities to conduct those screenings. 

But Fitzpatrick, lead sponsor of the bill to expand background checks to unlicensed parties who transfer firearms, dismissed the discharge petition as a political messaging move and said he would not sign the petition for his own bill.

“We’ve passed that bill multiple times. The background check bill, red flag laws — I voted for the assault weapons ban. But at some point, we need to start thinking about getting things done rather than sending messages across the floor of the House,” Fitzpatrick said. “I really object to that, because it’s a very intellectually dishonest way of proceeding when you don’t have any strategy to navigate 60 votes in the Senate.”

Fitzpatrick said he is working on trying to come up with compromise legislation that can get support from Republicans and pass in the Senate, but he said it is a “sensitive issue.”

“Every single time we pass this bill, everyone’s like, ‘Our work’s done.’ It’s not done. If you actually care about getting it done, go over there and figure out how to get 60 votes. If you’re not doing that, what are you doing? That’s what’s very frustrating about a lot of these games being played,” Fitzpatrick said.

Other moderate Republicans expressed skepticism as well.

Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) — who called Fitzpatrick one of his “best friends” — said he would “probably not” sign on to the Democratic-led effort but suggested he would look into the matter.

“I would be willing to read what Fitz has,” he later added, “so I won’t say out of hand I wouldn’t do it ‘cause I just don’t know the details of it.”

He pointed out the nuanced nature of background check legislation.

“Expanding background checks has a lot of different possibilities,” Bacon said. “I’m for upgrading our background checks ‘cause the FBI has databases. But if you’re gonna make me do a background check on my son, which was in the Democrats’ bill last cycle, that’s going too far. So it just depends what the details are.”

The House passed Fitzpatrick’s background checks bill on a bipartisan basis in the past two Congresses, when the chamber was controlled by Democrats. The Pennsylvania Republican was one of eight Republicans to vote for the bill each time, but it went nowhere in the Senate in the face of GOP opposition.

To force a bill to the floor, Democrats need a simple majority of the lower chamber — 218 lawmakers — to endorse one of their discharge petitions. All but four of the chamber’s 212 Democrats have signed on to the petition for the Fitzpatrick bill so far: Reps. Jared Golden (Maine), Henry Cuellar (Texas), Mary Sattler Peltola (Alaska) and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (Wash.).

Republicans view the issue through a dramatically different lens. And a vast majority of GOP lawmakers in both chambers oppose any legislation that restricts gun sales or ownership, saying those measures trample sacrosanct rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment. While Democrats are calling for tougher gun laws, House Republicans have sought to loosen them. 

Indeed, the discharge petition effort arrived in June, just as House Republicans were passing legislation to repeal a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) rule that would require those who own firearms with a stabilizing brace, or pistol brace, to register the weapons with the agency. 

GOP supporters of the bill say pistol braces are a crucial tool for allowing disabled people, including military veterans, to use firearms — an argument rejected by supporters of the ATF rule. 

“It makes an assault pistol into an assault short-barreled rifle, and there’s a law — a federal law — against short-barreled rifles for a reason,” said Thompson, a Vietnam War veteran and gun owner. “The idea that this is somehow something that veterans are going to benefit from, it’s just bullshit.” 

The Senate later rejected the House legislation along party lines.

Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), who has broken with her party on several thorny issues like abortion and guns, rejected the argument that expanding background checks tramples constitutional rights.

“It’s not touching the Second Amendment by strengthening background checks,” she said. 

Still, Mace had voted against the expanded background check legislation in the last Congress and has not endorsed Fitzpatrick’s bill this year. She’s focusing on another proposal, to establish a public broadcast system warning people when a mass shooting occurs in their vicinity, similar to the Justice Department’s Amber Alert system for abducted children. And she won a promise from Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to vote on the bill this year — a concession that secured her vote on the Republicans’ partisan debt ceiling package in April. 

“We’re just finalizing the text of the bill to make sure no one on the committee has heartburn over it,” she said. “I don’t want it to be a messaging bill, so I’m trying to make sure I dot all my i’s and cross all my t’s, so it can get through the Senate.”

Though the chances of success are slim, discharge petitions have become one of Democrats’ favorite tools to combat the House GOP majority.

As McCarthy pushed President Biden to agree to spending cuts and policy reforms as a condition of raising the debt ceiling, Democrats launched a discharge petition effort on an alternate bill to raise the debt limit without cuts. Though every Democrat in the House signed on to the bill, moderate Republicans whom they hoped to target flatly rejected it, and the House eventually passed a debt limit deal that McCarthy negotiated with Biden.

And to mark the anniversary of the Dobbs Supreme Court decision that eliminated a federal right to obtain an abortion, Democrats introduced a discharge petition for the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would ban states from restricting abortion before the point of fetal viability.

Bacon said Democratic attempts at using the historically unsuccessful procedural gambit is an example of the minority party taking advantage of the few tools available to it.

“You use every strategy that’s possible to you, and it’s one of theirs, trying to get something on the floor,” he said.

Tags Brian Fitzpatrick Democrats Gun control gun reform House House Democrats

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