Over the past few days, top Republicans have given hints that they are considering some gun control measures in the wake of the mass-shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando. That’s a sea change for GOP leaders who have typically blocked any new restrictions on gun ownership, citing Second Amendment rights.
The chief proposals include gun-purchasing restrictions for those on the FBI terrorist watch list and expanding background checks for gun buyers.
On Tuesday, several media outlets quoted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying he was “open to serious suggestions from the experts as to what we might be able to do to be helpful.”
And on Wednesday, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeted: “I will be meeting with the NRA, who has endorsed me, about not allowing people on the terrorist watch list, or the no fly list, to buy guns.”
In a statement to Kentucky Public Radio Tuesday, McConnell said, “Republicans are committed to serious proposals to stop future attacks of this nature like the bipartisan measure championed by (Texas) Sen. (John) Cornyn, which would give the Justice Department the ability to prevent known or suspected terrorists from purchasing firearms while protecting the constitutional rights of all Americans.”
Cornyn’s proposal would put a 72-hour hold on gun purchases for people on the terror watch list. Federal officials would then have to prove why the purchaser shouldn’t be allowed to buy the firearm.
Cornyn is in talks with California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has proposed a bill that would ban gun purchases by anyone on the FBI terror watch list and thousands more on the “no-fly list.”
The shooter in the Orlando rampage, Omar Mateen, had been on the FBI terrorist watch list for 10 months before being removed.
U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, a Louisville Democrat, said he was “pleasantly stunned” when he heard McConnell say he was considering some form of gun control measure.
“There seems to be a desire on the part of Republicans to do something” Yarmuth said. “I’ve sensed that for the last couple days. I think when you get this kind of an event, the largest mass-shooting in U.S. history and it happens five months from an election which Republicans are already sweating, then that might have something to do with it.”
Yarmuth supports the terrorist watch list/no-fly list restrictions, expanding background checks and a ban on assault weapons.
Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican, previously supported Cornyn’s measure to have courts review gun purchases by those on the terrorist watch list for 72 hours when it was proposed as an amendment to a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act last year.
“In December, I voted to make sure no terrorist can buy guns in the U.S.,” Paul said in a statement Wednesday. “The legislation I supported, however, prevented the Obama administration from drawing up a secret list of hundreds of thousands or even millions of Americans who through no judicial process are stripped of their rights.”
Paul opposes government surveillance policies like the bulk collection of cell phone data by the National Security Agency.
On Wednesday, Paul’s Democratic opponent in this year’s Senate race, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, accused Paul of voting to allow those on the terrorist watch list to continue owning guns.
“Enough is enough,” Gray said. “Sen. Paul should tell Kentuckians why he voted to keep the terror gun loophole open. He should explain how many more mass shootings will happen before he takes meaningful action to keep Americans safe.”
Gray challenged Paul to take up the terrorist watch list “loophole” and prevent those with mental disabilities from owning guns.
Paul countered: “Make no mistake, what Jim Gray and President Obama want to do together is take guns away from law-abiding Kentuckians.”
Meanwhile, the rest of Kentucky’s federal delegation was mixed on whether to pursue gun control legislation.
U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Somerset Republican and senior member of the delegation, said the shooting should focus the country on “enhancing our counterterrorism and counter-radicalization efforts.”
“This week’s tragedy is not about politics or gun rights; it is about stopping terrorists who hate America and the freedoms our flag represents,” Rogers said. “There is a better way to end this senseless violence on our homeland: ramping up our national security and defense efforts, and passing meaningful legislation that will save American lives.”
U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, a Hopkinsville Republican retiring this year, does not believe in increased gun control measures, according to his spokesman.
“None of the proposals currently being discussed would have prevented Omar Mateen from purchasing a firearm because he was removed from the terrorist watch list — raising serious questions about where the process broke down and how it can be fixed,” Whitfield spokesman Robert Hankins said. “The congressman believes our focus should be on combating Islamic extremism, improving awareness and access to mental health programs and treatment, and ensuring our existing laws are properly enforced.”
U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, a Lexington Republican, said that the country needs to enforce existing laws and better maintain the terrorist watch list, which he suggests Matteen should have still been on.
“Although Mr. Mateen was investigated twice by the FBI and at one time appeared on a terrorist watch list, those investigations were closed based on an erroneous finding that he did not pose a threat,” Bar said. “The more relevant question is whether the FBI handled these investigations properly, whether it was appropriate to remove Mr. Mateen from a terror watch list, and in what ways should FBI procedures be modified to make sure that suspected terrorists remain on watch lists to prevent them from purchasing firearms.”
U.S. Rep. Brett Guthrie, a Bowling Green Republican, similarly questioned why Mateen was removed from the FBI watch list, and he cautioned against limiting gun rights.
“I am a supporter of protecting Second Amendment rights, and we must be careful not to take actions that would restrict the freedoms of millions of law-abiding Americans,” Guthrie said.
Rep. Thomas Massie, a Lewis County Republican, did not respond to a request for comment, though his press secretary pointed to recent posts on Massie’s Facebook page criticizing Democrats for pushing for gun control legislation after the shooting.
“As usual, the gun control being proposed is unconstitutional and would not have prevented the tragedy that the legislators seek to use to motivate its passage,” Massie wrote.
“What could have prevented this tragedy? How about eliminating gun free zones where security is inadequate to protect law abiding citizens who are otherwise capable, willing and endowed (by their Creator with the right) to defend themselves.”