Democrats pressing for legislation to address gun violence are reassessing their strategy after a year in which they staged high-visibility demonstrations in the House and Senate to demand action.
With Republicans in control of both chambers and the White House next year, Democrats and advocates predict they will have to pivot and block measures that expand gun owners’ rights.
“First and foremost, we have to play defense,” said Connecticut Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, noting that the National Rifle Association backed President-elect Donald Trump.
“The NRA is clearly going to make a big ask of Donald Trump early in 2017. We don’t know what it is yet,” Murphy told reporters Thursday. “We can guess that it might be a national concealed weapon law. But the NRA clearly is going to want something in return for their early support of Trump.”
Murphy joined nearly 80 relatives of victims of gun violence and a handful of lawmakers at the Capitol on Thursday, four years and one day after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that left 20 children and six adult staff members dead.
Family members recited the names of slain loved ones and held up their pictures. They gathered in a room named for Gabe Zimmerman, an aide to Democratic former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was killed during a 2011 shooting in Tucson, Arizona, that critically injured Giffords.
“We are in for a long fight,” Murphy told the group.
Murphy said advocates will go on the offensive at the state level, focusing on adding state ballot measures relating to expanded background checks.
In 2016, four states considered gun control ballot measures. Voters in California and Nevada approved measures expanding background checks, and voters in Washington State approved a measure allowing firearms to be taken away from people who are deemed a danger to themselves and others. A measure expanding background checks in Maine was defeated.
Murphy said backers of the curbs are looking for other states that could take similar steps in 2017 and 2018.
“We will make change one state at a time and we will hold the line here in Washington,” Murphy said.
He also expressed hope that Congress could address the so-called terror gap, referring to a Democratic push to bar suspected terrorists from purchasing guns.
The Senate rejected the idea and three other gun-related measures in June, after Murphy staged a nearly 15-hour filibuster in June. None of the measures reached the 60 votes required to advance.
Despite the lack of movement, Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said 2016 will be remembered as a turning point.
Gross pointed to the successful ballot measures, Murphy’s filibuster and House Democrats’ nearly 26-hour sit-in on the House floor in June to demand gun control votes as proof of changing times. Others noted that one of their top Senate targets, New Hampshire GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte, lost her re-election bid, while Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, who supported expanding background checks, won his race.
“2016 will be remembered through history as the year the American people have finally come together to say, ‘Enough,’” Gross said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal said congressional Democrats will remain active by submitting gun control bills and calling for hearings on gun violence.
“The best defense is a good offense,” the Connecticut Democrat said. “I’m very hopeful that we will see some forward progress at some point.”
Blumenthal also said gun violence could be raised in upcoming confirmation hearings for Trump’s Cabinet picks, including his attorney general nominee, Alabama GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions.
Linda McMahon, Trump’s pick to lead the Small Business Administration, could also face questions about the issue, Blumenthal said. He noted that McMahon, who ran for the Senate against Murphy in 2012 and against Blumenthal in 2010, is from Connecticut and familiar with gun control issues.
When it comes to Trump, Blumenthal said this was a “Nixon to China moment” for the president-elect.
“Donald Trump has the same opportunity to make America safer and better,” he said, pointing out that the president-elect’s unpredictable nature is the only indication that he could switch his views on gun control.
“Here is an issue where, morally and legally and politically, there is a big historic moment of opportunity and he could seize it,” Blumenthal said. “So it’s hope. I’m not predicting. But it’s a hope.”
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