Pressure mounts on McConnell over gun safety bills after mass shootings in Texas, Ohio

Fresh off a Fancy Farm weekend where he was heckled as “Moscow Mitch” for refusing to allow a vote on election security bills, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, received a new round of criticism Monday — this time related to gun violence.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, Monday called on McConnell to reconvene the Senate and pass gun control legislation that cleared the House in February.

“Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has called himself the ‘grim reaper’ and refuses to act on this bipartisan legislation,” the two said in a statement. “It is incumbent upon the Senate to come back into session to pass this legislation immediately.”

The issue reinserted itself in the forefront of the American psyche this weekend after 29 people were killed in two mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas. The alleged shooter in El Paso, who killed 20 people, had previously written a manifesto where he talked about the “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

McConnell in a statement late Monday said Senate Republicans were “prepared to do our part” and that he had spoken with the chairmen of three Senate committees to see if they could identify legislation “to help protect our communities without infringing on Americans’ constitutional rights.”

But he warned that the legislation would need to have support across the aisle.

“Only serious, bipartisan, bicameral efforts will enable us to continue this important work and produce further legislation that can pass the Senate, pass the House, and earn the president’s signature,” McConnell said. “Partisan theatrics and campaign-trail rhetoric will only take us farther away from the progress all Americans deserve.”

On a pre-scheduled conference call with House Democrats on Monday, Pelosi said she was talking to the father of a teenager who died in the 2018 Parkland School shooting and pointed to McConnell as the chief obstacle to gun control legislation.

“He and others like him are saying, ‘Mitch McConnell. Mitch McConnell. Mitch McConnell. Help us make Mitch McConnell bring up this bill,’“ Pelosi told Democrats, according to a Democratic aide on the call. “We have to get this bill passed and Mitch McConnell is the roadblock to it. And, we have to work with other senators, Republican senators, who might urge him to do so.’“

Pelosi urged Democrats to keep up the pressure: “The President and Mitch McConnell have to feel the public sentiment on this. We have a golden opportunity to save lives.”

When asked by the Herald-Leader Monday whether McConnell believed a legislative response was necessary to address mass shootings and whether something should be done about white supremacy in America, McConnell communications director Robert Steurer referred to a statement the Senate majority leader put out after the August 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that resulted in the death of a woman.

“The messages of hate and bigotry are not welcome in Kentucky and should not be welcome anywhere in America,” McConnell said at the time. “We can have no tolerance for an ideology of racial hatred… and those who espouse their views are not supporters of American ideals and freedoms. We all have a responsibility to stand against hate and violence, wherever it raises its evil head.”

McConnell is in the beginnings of a reelection bid in a state where regulations on guns have only become more lax. Earlier this year, the Kentucky General Assembly passed a bill allowing people to carry a concealed weapon without first getting a permit.

The Senate majority leader has already drawn potential challengers in the 2020 race. When his highest profile rival, former Marine Corps pilot Amy McGrath, was asked the same questions by the Herald-Leader, the McGrath campaign pinned the blame on McConnell and did not address the issue of white supremacy.

“Amy McGrath has been outspoken about the need for systematic change in Washington,” said Mark Nickolas, McGrath’s campaign manager. “Mitch McConnell refuses to even have a debate about the epidemic of gun violence because he, along with other members of congress, take millions from the gun lobby and then refuse to do anything while Americans continue to endure horrific gun massacres. Nothing will change until we have leaders who will have the courage to stand up to the special interests and take a serious look at commonsense bipartisan reforms.”

McGrath said during her unsuccessful 2018 campaign for Congress that she “makes no apologies that she supports the Second Amendment” but called gun violence an epidemic. She called for universal background checks before purchasing a gun and banning bump stocks, an accessory that allows a shooter to quickly fire rounds, saying “everything should be on the table” to address the issue.

Democratic Senate candidate Mike Broihier also criticized McConnell and Republican leaders, saying racism needed to be called out.

“This is not an issue upon which one can remain silent, stand astride or try to finesse. Leaders must have the courage to call out the white supremacists, the white nationalists and their enablers for what they are: racist and un-American,” Broihier said. “There is no single solution but exposing the racists and their enablers, enacting commonsense gun laws and providing affordable access to mental health care for everyone will move us a long way toward slowing or stopping this cycle of heinous violence.”

The U.S. House passed two pieces of gun control legislation in February, but both cleared with little Republican support and McConnell has not taken them up in the Senate.

The House in February passed legislation dubbed the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, with eight Republicans joining nearly every Democrat to vote for the bill. The bill would expand background checks by requiring them for nearly all private sales, including gun shows and online transactions.

Supporters say it ensures that people who would fail a background check if they attempted to buy a gun from a licensed dealer can’t go to an unlicensed online seller without being run through the national criminal background check system.

The House a day later passed legislation called the Enhanced Background Checks Act, which gives the FBI more time to do background checks on gun purchasers. Just three Republicans voted for the bill which would close the so-called “Charleston loophole” that allowed an avowed white supremacist to buy a gun used to kill nine people at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston. S.C., in 2015.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, whose effort to extend background check rules for nearly all gun sales died in the Senate in 2013, said Trump called him Monday morning and demonstrated a “constructive willingness to engage” on the gun legislation, which Toomey hopes to revive.

Toomey said he spoke with McConnell about the legislation, but declined to say whether McConnell planned a vote.

“But my view is, if we have enough support in the Senate, then we ought to have the vote and I intend to do everything I can to persuade Sen McConnell if that’s necessary,” Toomey said. “It’s important to me that we get that vote. Still more important that we succeed with it.”

He said the Senate doesn’t need to come back immediately, that it’s “most important” to build support for the legislation.

It is not unprecedented for Congress to cut short a break to address emergency legislation. Members of Congress in 2005 rushed back from Easter recess on Palm Sunday as the Republican-dominated chambers scrambled to keep a severely brain-damaged Florida woman alive by reinserting a feeding tube.