Gun rights advocates entered the Trump era with high hopes. After years of frustration they thought a gun-friendly president and Congress would advance their agenda. At the top of the list: a gun-owner’s ability to bring a legal weapon across any state lines, a policy known as reciprocity.
But many of their favorite initiatives have stalled in Washington, set aside as the city is closely watching the investigations into President Donald Trump’s administration. Republicans are focused on other priorities, especially health care, but also keeping gun rights on the back burner may be the fact that because they are, in fact, a heavy lift.
Congress faces a public weary of mass shootings, terror attacks and random violence — most recently in the shadows of the nation’s capital when a man disgruntled about Trump and conservatives opened fire on a ballfield where Republican congressmen were practicing for a baseball game, injuring five people including a House Republican leader. And while a recent Pew study showed Americans pretty much split on support for gun control, specific provisions like keeping guns away from the mentally ill or those on watch lists are actually quite popular.
“Reciprocity in particular is going to prove to be a harder sell,” said Robert Spitzer, chairman of the political science department at State University of New York at Cortland. “Think gun-toting civilians in Times Square. It’s going to be a hard sell, and the Republicans will have to squander what few political resources they have to push the bill along.”
The year started off with promise for the gun industry when Congress almost immediately scrapped a rule created to deny people with some mental disorders from purchasing a firearm. On his first day in office, the new Interior secretary — who rode to work that day on horseback — lifted a ban on hunting with lead ammunition on federal park land.
Gun rights groups have other key items on their agenda. After reciprocity, a perennial favorite is a measure that would make it easier to buy suppressors, commonly referred to as silencers. Supporters argue it would not only lower noise from guns — especially long guns used by hunters — but also add a potential market as they see sales drop.
So what’s happened? Not much.
Gun-control advocates say one reason is that they’ve become better organized and energized over the past decade after a spate of high-profile shootings — from the near-fatal attack on then-Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords to the killing of 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. The gun industry chalks the delays up to the normal course of business, further complicated by the splintered politics taking hold in Washington.
The gun lobby argues that the current patchwork of laws for concealed carry permits turns law-abiding gun owners into potential felons simply for crossing a state border since each state sets its own standards for who can carry, including which state’s permits it will honor. For example, someone who has a weapons permit in Georgia is prohibited from bringing their gun into 17 states. But for someone whose license is from Connecticut, there are two dozen states that won’t let them bring a weapon in.
Gun-control advocates contend that reciprocity would drop the standard to the lowest common denominator, essentially forcing all states to honor the most permissive laws on the books, like those that do not require background checks or, in some instances, even a permit.
“What it’s really about is guns everywhere for anyone, no questions asked,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety. “And that’s the gun lobby’s agenda.”
Reciprocity returned to the forefront almost immediately after the Alexandria shooting, with Kentucky Rep. Tom Massie introducing legislation that would specifically allow gun owners with valid permits to bring their weapons into the District of Columbia. That is in addition to the measures seeking national reciprocity that remain pending in the House and the Senate.
Starting the day of the shooting, advocates noted that gun-wielding Capitol police, who were at the field as security for Rep. Steve Scalise, the majority whip, saved the lives of others armed only with baseball bats. They said that others at the field were unable to carry a firearm because of plans to travel back to D.C. afterward. Gun-control advocates, however, note that in this particular case, lawmakers already have the ability to seek a permit in D.C. by virtue of working there.
The gun industry isn’t ready to call its agenda a lost cause just yet. But there is a growing impatience.
“We would like to see quicker action on these bills and we’re just now beginning to press the leadership to say now’s the time. Let’s not let this delay any longer,” said Erich Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America.
But gun-control advocates caution that Republicans are treading in politically treacherous territory.
“Republicans have limited amount of political capital. … And it’s political capital being spent by the day,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of Americans for Responsible Solutions, the outfit founded by Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly. “They’re very wary of putting a lot of their members through a series of tough votes.”
Larry Keane, senior vice president and general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, and a veteran of lobbying on behalf of gun rights, said gun bills typically take years, sometimes decades, to be enacted.
“The fact that you have a pro-gun Republican in the White House and pro-gun majorities in both the House and Senate, it doesn’t mean that you’re just going to get your Christmas list all at once and right away. It takes time.”