Top Republicans said Tuesday that there is room for a limited gun control debate in the wake of this weekend’s church shooting because the massacre has exposed loopholes in the background check system that both parties agree need to be fixed.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, said he would begin drafting a bill to remind government agencies of their duty to provide information to the background check system and would offer incentives to try to earn more cooperation from states.
A Democrat and a Republican, meanwhile, announced legislation to force the military to report cases that in any state court would qualify as domestic violence, but which under military justice are classified in such a way that they are shielded from the background check system.
The gunman in Sunday’s massacre had a number of red flags, including a bad conduct discharge from the Air Force after serving time for a 2014 domestic violence accusation, that should have denied him access to a firearm. But those flags were never reported to the federal background check system that gun buyers must clear before they can purchase a weapon from a federally licensed dealer.
“We are often asked after a tragedy like this, ‘Why can’t you do anything to fix it?’ We are looking specifically at something where, had it been followed, this person would not have been able to have a firearm,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who is working with Sen. Martin Heinrich, New Mexico Democrat, on the bill.
The invitation from Republicans to wade into a gun debate is striking. After other shooting sprees, many Republicans said the problem wasn’t a lack of laws, but a lack of enforcement of those already on the books.
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Republicans have also been wary of igniting a gun debate because they have a tendency to spiral into full-blown fights over broad gun bans, which most Republican lawmakers oppose.
But Mr. Heinrich said it’s time both sides agree to take some limited steps that could have made a clear difference in this most recent case.
“We don’t want to fall in the trap of, ‘If we can’t agree to everything, we shouldn’t do anything,’” he said.
In the wake of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, Democrats have pushed for controls on “bump stocks,” which are add-ons that effectively give semiautomatic rifles the same rate of fire as true automatic machine guns. The devices helped make the Las Vegas shooting the most lethal in modern U.S. history.
Democrats said the matter demanded attention from Congress, while Republicans demurred, saying they weren’t sure legislation is needed.
Mr. Cornyn said the Obama administration was asked to regulate bump stocks but declined, insisting it didn’t have the power to do so under the law. Mr. Cornyn and other Republicans said they disagree with that decision by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) that it couldn’t regulate bump stocks.
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“This seems to me to be a regulatory gap that needs to be addressed,” he said.
President Trump, traveling in Asia, seemed less than enthusiastic about inviting a new gun debate, rejecting a reporter’s suggestion of “extreme vetting” for gun buyers.
He said even with tougher gun laws “there would have been no difference” in preventing the shooter, Devin Kelley, from carrying out his rampage in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday.
Mr. Trump also said the carnage would have been far worse without the armed response by Stephen Willeford, a Sutherland Springs resident who grabbed his own gun when he heard Kelley shooting up the church. Mr. Willeford wounded Kelley twice and, with another man, chased him in a truck before Kelley committed suicide.
The president said more restrictive gun laws might have prevented “that very brave person” from being able to neutralize the shooter.
“Just remember, if this man didn’t have a gun or rifle, you’d be talking about a much worse situation in the great state of Texas,” Mr. Trump said. “So that’s the way I feel about it. [More gun laws are] not going to help.”
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, also seemed reluctant to have a gun debate after Texas, saying Kelley should have been denied a firearm under existing law.
“How did this slip through the cracks?” he said. “The laws we have right now on the books say a person like this should not have gotten a gun.”
Mr. Flake, though, said it sounds like a change to the law is necessary.
He said the military has reported only one domestic-violence-type case to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System in the past 10 years, suggesting the Defense Department doesn’t have a good handle on reporting.
“I think it’s quite clear they simply weren’t sending those assault records through,” he said.
Mr. Flake also said he would be willing to vote for legislation banning the use of bump stocks if the administration can’t do it by regulation.
The Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 spurred changes to the NICS. Congress enacted a law to require states to share more mental health data for background check purposes. The bill also created a pool of money to help encourage states to provide the data.
Leading Democrats had been pushing similar legislation for years, but it stalled until the school shooting.
Outside of new laws, Republicans and Democrats said the Defense Department needs to look at its reporting policies.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Democrat, wrote a letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis saying the Pentagon must review investigations and cases of the past decade to see who should be listed but isn’t.
“If this can happen in one case, it could happen in others,” she said.