US gun control: Congress returns under pressure to act | News | DW | 26.02.2018
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US gun control: Congress returns under pressure to act

Multiple proposals have been put forward to battle gun violence as debate rages following a Florida high school shooting. But with the gun lobby flatly rejecting any ban, the question is whether Congress can act.

Members of Congress return to work in Washington on Monday after a 10-day break, under pressure to act on gun violence.

A flurry of proposals to strengthen gun laws have been put forward in the wake of the February 14 shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 people dead, most of them students.

President Donald Trump has suggested strengthening background checks for gun purchases, raising the age to 21 to buy certain weapons and banning bump stocks, which convert semi-automatic weapons into automatic firearms. The proposals, however, should be "up to states," Trump said. 

"I think we're going to have a great bill put forward very soon having to do with background checks, having to do with getting rid of certain things and keeping other things, and perhaps we'll do something on age," Trump said in a Fox News interview on Saturday.

Read more: 8 facts about gun control in the US 

"We are drawing up strong legislation right now having to do with background checks, mental illness. I think you will have tremendous support. It's time. It's time," he added.

Growing support, but not from NRA

Facing midterm elections in November, members of Congress are as divided as ever on the hot-button political issue of gun control.

Republicans are wary of antagonizing their conservative base and gun rights advocates, including the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) lobby group. Trump was endorsed by the NRA in his 2016 presidential election campaign.

The NRA has said it doesn't support any of the modest proposals put forward by Trump and some Republicans, with spokeswoman Dana Loesch saying Sunday on ABC's "This Week" that the group "doesn't back any ban." The NRA does, however, back a controversial idea to arm teachers.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told public affairs network C-SPAN that arming teachers is "a terrible idea."

Children, parents and teachers "want schools to be safe sanctuaries for teaching and learning, not armed fortresses," she said.

Read more: Can a group of Florida high school students change America's cycle of gun violence?

Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, has also opposed arming teachers. He has said he may also back raising the age on some rifle purchases. 

Other Republicans are also starting to voice support for stricter gun laws. Senator Pat Roberts, a Republican from Kansas, has said he would support raising the age limit to buy semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15 used in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting on Valentine's Day.

Congressman Brian Mast, a Florida Republican and longtime NRA member, wrote in The New York Times that he now supports a ban on assault weapons.

Meanwhile, Florida Governor Rick Scott has suggested placing police officers at public schools in the state, raising the age for gun purchases to 21 and implementing a law that would allow authorities to take away guns from the mentally ill and those with a history of violence.

Proposed legislation

The shift, even if slight, comes as a new CNN poll conducted a week after the Florida shooting showed 70 percent of respondents favoring stricter gun laws, up from 52 percent in October. Fifty-seven percent said they supported banning semi-automatic weapons, compared to 49 percent before.

One piece of legislation that has a chance of moving forward is a bipartisan bill to ensure federal agencies and states comply with existing laws and accurately report criminal information to the national background check system run by the FBI. 

But the legislation, introduced after more than two dozen people were killed by a gunman at a Texas church last November, has stalled because it was tied to another unrelated measure advocated by the NRA to allow people to carry concealed weapons across state lines. Democrats oppose the concealed weapons measure.

Another bill that may gain traction is one proposed by Senator Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, and Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, to expand presale checks for firearms purchases online and at gun shows.

The measure was first introduced after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut, but has twice been rejected by the Senate.

Representative Steve Scalise, a Republican from Louisiana, suggested existing laws needed to be better enforced. 

"There's no magic bill that's going to stop the next thing from happening when so many laws are already on the books that weren't being enforced, that were broken," said Scalise, who was injured when a gunman opened fire on congressional baseball team practice last year. "The breakdowns that happen, this is what drives people nuts," said the third-most senior House Republican.

cw/cmk (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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