As Shootings Continue, Prospects for Gun Control Action in Congress Remain Dim

WASHINGTON — Despite calls by President Biden and others for postelection action on gun control while Democrats still hold Congress, lawmakers engaged on the issue see little chance that there will be another serious gun debate this year in the aftermath of mass killings in Colorado and Virginia.

With the lame-duck agenda already overflowing and Republicans resistant to reopening the issue after a surprise bipartisan success on gun safety last summer, proponents of tougher restrictions on assault weapons, universal background checks and other measures say the window for more legislation is likely closed.

“It is a very crowded calendar,” said Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut and one of the chief architects of the gun deal earlier this year. “I would obviously support taking time to talk about gun violence, but we have a lot of competing priorities.”

Congress still needs to come to terms on funding the government into next year, consider the annual Pentagon policy bill and try to overhaul the Electoral Count Act to address vulnerabilities exposed during the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol. A new gun debate could roil the House and Senate at a critical time and have little chance of resulting in a new law, said Mr. Murphy and others, who conceded that backers of a ban on new assault-style weapons lack the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster.

“The blunt, stark fact is that there simply aren’t enough votes,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut. “The votes aren’t there.”

The inability to take up gun legislation again this year means any realistic chance to pass new gun restrictions will have to wait at least two years. The new Republican majority in the House will adamantly oppose an assault weapons ban or other measure seen as infringing on gun rights. Given the new partisan dynamic, gun safety will revert to being mainly a political football as the two parties jockey for advantage heading into 2024.

The White House tacitly acknowledged as much this week after Mr. Biden said on Thanksgiving that he intended to renew his push for a ban on assault weapons following mass shootings at an L.G.B.T.Q. club in Colorado Springs and a Walmart in Chesapeake, Va.

Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, allowed that an assault weapons ban would be an “uphill battle,” but said that Mr. Biden wouldn’t drop the subject just because it could not advance in Congress.

“We understand that this is not easy, he gets that,” she said. “But it doesn’t mean that he’s going to stop fighting for it or that he’s going to stop talking about it.”

She also noted that Mr. Biden had signed into law the most significant gun legislation in decades in June, following the shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Tex., that killed 19 children and two adults and a racially motivated shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., that claimed 10 lives.

That measure, which was negotiated in the Senate, did not go as far as Democrats would have preferred. But it took new steps to try to halt the shooting epidemic by providing incentives for states to enact “red flag” laws to deny guns to individuals perceived to be threats, and new mental health resources and funding for programs to reduce school violence. It also imposed enhanced background checks on gun buyers between the ages of 18 and 21 and barred people convicted of abuse against romantic partners from buying guns.

Republican backers saw it as providing new tools to deter violence while steering clear of infringing on Second Amendment rights, a main reason for their opposition to an assault weapons ban.

Senator John Cornyn of Texas, a chief Republican negotiator on the legislation, said Republicans were not interested in another struggle over gun rights so soon after what they saw as a significant legislative success.

“We put a lot into what I consider to be a very important bill post-Uvalde,” Mr. Cornyn said. “It made the single largest investment in community-based mental health care, provided a lot of resources to schools to make them safer and enhanced the background check system for a vulnerable population between 18 to 21. We haven’t even seen it be fully implemented, and won’t for a while.”

Mr. Cornyn said he agreed with Mr. Murphy that 60 votes for an assault weapons ban were out of reach at the moment.

“I understand some people think it’s the gun, rather than the person that pulls the trigger,” he said. “I think it is just a basic difference of opinion. I think law-abiding gun owners are not a threat to public safety and some on the left disagree with that.”

Though any new gun law remains out of reach, Democrats could still bring up a measure and force a floor vote to, in Mr. Murphy’s words, “see where people stand.”

Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, on Tuesday would not rule out trying to force a vote on the issue in the coming weeks and said he wanted a ban to become law.

“Look, the bottom line is that I am the author of the assault weapons ban,” said Mr. Schumer about the expired legislation that he first proposed and saw enacted as a member of the House in 1994. “I believe in it strongly. And we’re continuing to work to see the best way we can try to get this done.”

But with time running short in the final weeks of Congress, pushing a purely political vote risks infuriating Republicans when majority Democrats still need some cooperation across the aisle to finish up their work.

Mr. Murphy noted that because they held on to the Senate majority in last month’s midterms, Democrats will be able to revisit the issue in 2023, even if any vote would be little more than a symbolic move in the face of opposition from the Republican-led House.

“We always have the ability to take this vote next year to put people on record,” he said.

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