President Obama’s rallying cries in his State of the Union address for Congress to vote on his gun-control measures prodded his fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill into fighting mode, with one prominent party member warning House Speaker John A. Boehner on Wednesday not to “hide from the American people” on the issue.
Toward the end of his speech, Mr. Obama recited a litany of recent mass shootings in America and demanded that lawmakers allow a vote on proposals for comprehensive background checks, for an assault-weapons ban and for a limit on the capacity of gun magazines as lawmakers rose to their feet and Democrats raised their voices in a crescendo of approval.
His party cohorts in Congress immediately picked up where he left off.
“This was clearly the most powerful moment of the speech, and the president’s right,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, said Wednesday on CNN’s “Starting Point.” “I mean, if Speaker Boehner and others want to vote ‘no,’ go ahead and do it, but do it in the light of day. Don’t try and hide from the American people. And [I] think that’s what people are looking for, a little honesty in the debate, not people trying to, you know, put proposals in the drawer and hide from accountability and responsibility.”
Rep. Mike Thompson, who chairs a congressional task force on gun violence, said he was ready to go Tuesday night.
“I thought we should have gone to a vote on those issues right there. Everybody was there,” the California Democrat quipped, also referring to looming sequestration cuts set to take effect March 1.
But like Mr. Van Hollen, Rep. Xavier Becerra, California Democrat, issued a direct challenge to his colleagues across the aisle.
“Don’t hold things up because you don’t like them ideologically,” said the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “Don’t stifle progress simply because you don’t like the way the bill looks or the issue sounds. Give people a chance to vote, and then let’s decide. We have a choice in this country, freedom of choice, to decide yes, no, or present, and so let’s vote.”
Although the address appears to have buoyed the spirits of his party, Mr. Obama’s words are unlikely to result in a sea change of the issue’s political dynamics. Mr. Boehner reiterated Wednesday that he will defer to the Senate on the matter, though he did acknowledge that Congress has a responsibility to do something.
“Listen, we all feel for the victims of these mass shootings,” he said. “They’re horrible images. And I was glad that those people were there last night. And the Congress does have a responsibility to look at violence in our society and make responsible decisions on how we can reduce that violence in the incidents of these mass shootings.”
A few House Republicans have signed onto legislation dealing with tougher penalties for gun trafficking — a relatively low-profile measure that stands a much better chance of passing than, for example, a ban on high-capacity magazines.
But Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, countered Democrats on Wednesday by citing the example of Alice Boland, who was indicted in 2005 after repeatedly threatening to kill President George W. Bush. She pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and the case was dismissed, but was still able to purchase a semiautomatic pistol in South Carolina earlier this month.
Mr. Graham said Ms. Boland is “Exhibit A” of a broken system and that the current gun laws on the books need to be enforced more vigorously — but he did agree with Mr. Obama’s broader sentiment.
“Let’s vote,” he said. “I don’t disagree with the president to have the debate. Let’s vote. Let’s find something we can agree on. Alice Boland should not get a gun, so part of the mix should be legislation to fix this problem.”
But Sen. Christopher S. Murphy said those who aren’t willing to get behind more ambitious proposals deserve to be called out.
“The members of Congress who want to water down this legislation or don’t want the legislation to happen at all — they need to be confronted by the very real, deep and immovable pain that our community is going through,” the Connecticut Democrat said. “We just don’t think that this Congress should ignore it.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, is trying to prepare a bill on gun crimes by the end of the month. Mr. Leahy has already proposed legislation to crack down on gun trafficking and “straw purchasers” who buy guns for people who can’t legally obtain them.