WASHINGTON — After highly public shootings, Republicans have been quick to say that gun control legislation isn’t the answer. The Sunday Texas church shooting would likely have been another such instance.
But in the Texas case, the veteran who killed 26 people and wounded 20 others shouldn't have been able to buy a gun legally because of a violent crime conviction on his military record, a fact that the Air Force failed to relay to the FBI background-check system.
That has given GOP lawmakers an opportunity they can use to show they're acting on the tragedy, even if it's just to push government agencies to follow laws already on the books.
Devin Kelley had been convicted by a military court for beating his infant stepson. That conviction should have barred him from buying weapons. But the Air Force never flagged the offense in the National Criminal Information Center database.
“How about enforcing the laws we’ve got on the books?” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters Tuesday after he was asked how to stop gun violence if he wasn’t willing to support gun control legislation. “This man should not have gotten a gun, you know why? Because he was a domestic abuser. We have laws on the books that says if you’re a domestic abuser you’re not supposed to own a gun.”
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas announced Tuesday that he was introducing a bill to try and encourage federal agencies — including military services — to put all convictions in the system.
“Because there was no record of it, (Kelley) was able to lie his way into getting these firearms. This is very clearly a problem, and the Air Force has now admitted that Kelley's conviction should have barred him from ever purchasing or possessing firearms,” Cornyn said on the Senate floor Tuesday.
“There are enormous problems with the background check system … this is one of those areas of consensus on a very contentious topic,” Cornyn said.
Cornyn and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy — a vocal gun control advocate who represented Newtown, Conn., the scene of an elementary school shooting in which 26 people were killed — have discussed working together on possible legislation.
“I think Republicans have made it pretty clear that they’re going to continue to stand in the way of background checks legislation, but you know I’m going to continue to press the case. I think it’s much more likely that we’re going to be able to work together to try to clean up the existing background checks system,” Murphy told reporters Tuesday. “Sen. Cornyn and I have talked already about working together, strengthening existing background checks system.”
“We should have a total and thorough examination to make sure that we are capturing all folks in all of our branches and that’s what I think John intends to accomplish and yes, I’m supportive of that,” said Republican Sen. Tim Scott — who represents South Carolina, where a shooting at a Charleston church killed nine people in 2015 — told USA TODAY.
“I think certainly it’s easy to legislate the problem that was created here which is you just tell the military they have to report crimes in the military like anybody else has to report crimes,” Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt said.
Cornyn’s legislation wasn’t the only method to clean up background checks being discussed.
Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., announced they were working on a narrow bill that would make clear that “anyone convicted and charged with domestic violence should not be able to purchase firearms,” Flake told reporters Tuesday.
Flake acknowledged that while people convicted of domestic violence in civilian life are already barred from weapons purchases, the military doesn’t have a defined charge for domestic assault. So those charges go almost entirely unreported. He pointed to information from the NICS database that had only one report of domestic violence in a decade. The Flake-Heinrich bill would require that the military report domestic assaults as such.
“While there’s a lot to disagree on and our colleagues typically do when it comes to gun policy — I want to say as somebody who probably owns a lot more firearms than most of my colleagues on either side of the aisle — this is exactly the kind of individual who should have never passed a background check,” Heinrich said.
Heinrich said the bill was currently limited to just domestic violence charges because that was an immediate point of agreement.
Later in a response to a tweet from Donald Trump Jr., the president's son, that such a law already was on the books, Flake said he wanted to close the loophole.
Last month, after a shooting in Las Vegas that left 58 people dead and almost 500 wounded, congressional Republicans expressed a willingness to look at a ban on bump stocks, a legal device the shooter used which allowed his gun to act as a semi-automatic weapon. A House bill was introduced and Senate Republicans expressed willingness to look at a bill introduced by California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Tuesday evening, the Senate Judiciary Committee announced a Nov. 14 hearing on firearm accessory regulation and enforcing federal and state reporting to the federal background check system.
Cornyn told reporters earlier in the day that there would be a hearing in the Judiciary Committee on Feinstein's bill.
“As you know the bump stock effectively turns a semi-automatic weapon into an automatic weapon, something that would be a crime if it was done through another method,” Cornyn said. “This seems to be a regulatory gap that needs to be addressed.”
Contributing: Deirdre Shesgreen