Making gun violence a public health issue is seen as unlikely to cause divisions between liberal and centrist Democrats, some of whom are wary about moving too far to the left ahead of their 2020 reelection bids.
But with a divided Congress starting in January, Democratic leaders will have to tamp down expectations for achieving gun-related legislative goals of any kind since their bills will be landing in a GOP-led Senate.
Most legislation around gun violence was off the table for eight years of Republican rule in the House as GOP leaders sided with the powerful gun lobby against any new firearm restrictions, including federal funding for research.
Now, Democrats are united around making gun violence about public health, with some looking toward background checks as well.
At a recent press conference, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) said the incoming Democratic majority offers new possibilities.
“We have an opportunity to pass background checks for every firearm purchase,” said Swalwell, a progressive who is openly considering a 2020 presidential bid. “We have an opportunity to finally study gun violence in America to see what we can do.”
The U.S. has seen a long string of high-profile mass shootings at various venues and locations in recent years: an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.; a nightclub in Orlando, Fla.; a church in Charleston, S.C.; country music festival in Las Vegas; a high school in Parkland, Fla.; and a synagogue in Pittsburgh.
An analysis of government data this week found that gun-related deaths in the U.S. last year reached their highest level in almost four decades, with nearly 40,000 people killed.
As mass shootings have become more common, public opinion has evolved. Many of the newly elected Democrats from conservative districts embraced new restrictions on gun purchases while on the campaign trail without facing the previously feared backlash on Election Day.
Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) ran on support for universal background checks, and Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.), a member of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, was a co-sponsor of universal background check legislation this year.
With measures like those failing to make their way through Congress, Democrats are looking to start with appropriating government funds to study gun violence.
Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), the likely chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee next year, said appropriating funds fort he Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to study gun violence will be a priority in the new Congress.
“We have tried repeatedly over the last few years” to get authority and funding for research on gun violence, “and every time we try to do it we were turned down by Republicans,” Pallone said.
Long-standing restrictions have effectively prevented the CDC from conducting any kind of gun violence protection research. The so-called Dickey amendment, inserted into a 1996 government funding bill by the late Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.), has been renewed in subsequent years.
The provision states: "None of the funds made available in this title may be used, in whole or in part, to advocate or promote gun control.”
Although the provision doesn’t explicitly ban research into gun violence, public health advocates and Democrats say there’s been a chilling effect in place for more than 20 years that’s proven difficult to overcome.
When the Dickey Amendment first found its way into law, CDC researchers stopped working on gun-related projects. Congress moved the $2.6 million earmarked for gun violence and prevention studies into a fund to study traumatic brain injuries.
The agency has gone without dedicated funding for firearms research ever since.
Republicans say the CDC has always had the authority to conduct research into gun violence and that the agency has essentially engaged in self-censorship.
In addition to CDC funding, Pallone said the committee might take up legislation sponsored by Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.) that would mandate the U.S. surgeon general submit an annual report to Congress on the effects of gun violence on public health.
“We’re going to authorize the legislation we have not been able to move because of Republicans,” Pallone said at recent a press conference on gun violence. “That will make sure that kind of funding is available through the CDC.”
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who is expected to be chairwoman of the Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Department of Health and Human Services, said she hopes gun research can be bipartisan.
“If the claim by Republicans and the agency is that they have the authority to do it … then let’s provide them with the resources,” DeLauro told The Hill. “My hope is you can get bipartisan support on some very very basic issues.”
Democrats' larger plans for gun reform legislation are less clear.
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) said lawmakers are still “just laying out various bills at this point.” On top of research funding, he said he expects to see legislation regulating bump stocks and other types of policies that have strong public support.
Bump stocks, which modify certain semi-automatic weapons to fire much more rapidly, were used in the October 2017 Las Vegas shooting that left 59 people dead and more than 500 wounded.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the House will vote on gun violence legislation and has indicated universal background checks will be part of it.
“We will pass common sense gun violence prevention legislation soon, and it will be bipartisan,” Pelosi said at a press conference last week.
Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), head of the party’s task force to prevent gun violence, said the results of the November midterms speak to a need to act on gun reforms.
Thompson sponsored a background check bill this year and in 2016, and he will likely take the lead on it next year.
“There’s a new majority in the House of Representatives, and we will pass gun violence prevention legislation that will make our communities safer, that will respect the 2nd Amendment and that every American can be proud of,” Thompson said recently.
While gun bills are likely to pass the House, leaders will have to compromise on their priorities with the GOP-controlled Senate.
The midterm elections added to the GOP's Senate majority, and the incoming Republicans are all gun-rights promoters supported heavily by the firearms lobby, posing challenges for Democrats on the research-funding front.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he doesn’t think the Senate would take up a House bill with gun research provisions.
“I can’t imagine that that would be something we’d add specifically to the bill,” Blunt said. “They have the authority to do gun violence research … if they want to.”
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