One government shutdown may be narrowly averted, but another looms right around the corner. The stain of sexual misconduct at the Capitol continues to spread, and an alleged child predator is days away from possibly joining the Senate. Middle East destabilization seems assured as Congress gets its wish to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Public support dwindles daily for a loophole-encrusted, deficit-busting tax package that would be the year’s biggest legislative achievement. The push for presidential impeachment has gone far enough to necessitate procedural pushback in the House.
A week such as this one — already chockablock with headlines touching the Hill — seemed to the Republicans who run the place like an ideal time for making a bold hiding-in-plain-sight move.
And so it was that the House devoted more than two hours Wednesday to passing legislation that has no chance whatsoever of becoming law and is broadly unpopular with the electorate, but nonetheless fulfills the GOP’s commitment to doing the bidding of an extremely potent force in its political base.
The bill would effectively permit gun owners to conceal and carry their weapons anywhere in the country — which is nothing less than the “highest legislative priority” of the National Rifle Association. Under the bill, for example, people from several states who have violent felony convictions would be free to board the New York City subway with a semiautomatic pistol hidden in their overcoats.
The vote was 231-198. Only 14 Republicans, half of them facing very competitive contests for new terms next fall, voted against the NRA’s wishes. Just six Democrats, two of them expecting a tough 2018 campaign, voted for the bill.
In the debate, the blizzard of statistics about how the United States far outstrips the rest of the world in deadly gun violence was countermanded by a wave of passion about how the Second Amendment should guarantee people in the United States remain custodians of their own safety. Conservatives who profess faith in states’ rights argued that Hawaii should not be able to have concealed carry restrictions that make a transplant from Missouri feel unsafe.
Under normal circumstances, advancing the measure to certain death in the Senate, where there’s no chance it will overcome a Democratic filibuster, could be dismissed as the one of first of what will seem during the 2018 campaign season like an endless stream of “messaging votes” — designed not to advance changes in policy but to emphasize fealty to the conservative cause.
But this gun bill was something different. That’s because the poison pill language creating “reciprocity rights for gun owners” — the euphemistic NRA term for nationalizing the rules for carrying concealed guns that are in effect in the most permissive states — was combined in the House with something of a legislative unicorn: the first, albeit quite modest, gun control legislation in almost two decades that has drawn genuine bipartisan support on the Hill as well as the backing of both gun control advocacy groups and the NRA. The bill would compel federal agencies, and give incentives to state governments, to better report offenses under their jurisdictions that would prohibit offenders from buying firearms.
The aim is to shore up the reliability of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, known as NICS. Its limitations were laid bare last month after the massacre of more than two dozen worshipers inside a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, when it came to light that the Air Force never reported to NICS the domestic violence court-martial that would have kept the assailant from buying his weapons.
Watch: 10 Years of Congressional Efforts on Gun Control
The seven Republican opponents of the bill in competitive re-election contests all represent swing districts that either supported Hillary Clinton last year or came within a couple of percentage points of doing so: Ryan A. Costello, Brian Fitzpatrick and Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania; Carlos Curbelo of Florida; Dan Donovan of New York; Leonard Lance of New Jersey and Peter Roskam of Illinois.
Roskam, Lance and Costello all won their current terms with the NRA’s endorsement after earning 93 percent approval ratings from the group in the previous Congress. The others had much lower scores.
A similar measure — without any concealed carry provisions attached to weigh it down — has the sponsorship of 13 Democratic and a dozen Republican senators. But its author, Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, openly doubts that he can get the narrow bill passed now that senators supportive of the NRA have the opportunity to push instead for the two-pronged House measure.
The House’s concealed carry bill has already bubbled up in at least one Senate race. Both leading candidates for the GOP nomination in West Virginia, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Rep. Evan Jenkins, are touting their support for the bill in contrast to the position of the incumbent, Democrat Joe Manchin III, who has become a leading Democratic gun control advocate in the past five years after decades on the other side of the issue.
The House bill also tells the Justice Department to study — but only study — the criminal use of “bump stocks,” the piece of equipment that transforms a semiautomatic weapon into a de facto machine gun. Such devices enabled a gunman in Las Vegas to kill 58 people and roughly 500 others at a concert in October. Legislation to outlaw bump stocks has been put on hold by GOP leaders while the Justice Department determines whether current laws allow the product to be pulled off the shelves because using them amounts to manufacturing a prohibited kind of gun.