GOP braces for politics of gun debate

Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C. speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 14, 2017, following the shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of La., and others, during a Congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Va.
Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C. speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 14, 2017, following the shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of La., and others, during a Congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Va. AP

Voting to make it easier to buy noise suppressors for firearms seemed like a win for Republicans.

But when the National Rifle Association wasn’t present at a congressional hearing on the issue which has been at the top of its legislative agenda for years — it signaled the GOP might be growing aware of the new optics surrounding the gun debate.

Indeed, what would have been an ugly partisan fight under ordinary circumstances has been made even uglier by recent events, including the Oct. 1 massacre at an outdoor music festival in Las Vegas that quickly became the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

The saga at the center of the gun lobby’s absence on Capitol Hill, however, occurred June 14, when the NRA’s federal affairs director was scheduled to testify at a hearing on the Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement, or SHARE Act, a legislative package containing various land conservation programs and provisions aimed at supporting hunters, fishers, anglers and other outdoorsmen.

The Hearing Protection Act — the suppressor bill — is part of this package.

That same day, a gunman opened fire on the Republican baseball team practice in Alexandria, Va., injuring law enforcement personnel and congressmen, including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La. The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands, along with every other panel, postponed activity as Capitol Hill confronted the tragedy.

On Sept. 12, the subcommittee’s hearing was back on. This time, however, a representative from the NRA was not among the list of witnesses.

Reps. Rob Bishop of Utah and Tom McClintock of California, the top Republicans on the full Natural Resources Committee and federal lands subcommittee, respectively, deflected responsibility. They told McClatchy that witness invitations are extended by staff, not lawmakers.

Katie Schoettler, a committee spokeswoman, said decisions about who to invite were at the discretion of the subcommittee and that those who did testify contributed to a “robust discussion” on the SHARE Act.

NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker also would not comment on why a representative was not present at the rescheduled hearing, but said the group was in no way sidelined on an issue it has championed. The NRA, she said, would not be backing down in its public support for the legislation.

"The Hearing Protection Act is a top priority for the NRA, our members and the tens of millions of law abiding hunters, sportsmen and shooters across the country,” she said in a statement. “Until this important legislation is signed into law the NRA will continue to debunk the gun control lobby's misinformation campaign and educate members of Congress on the facts."

But the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, said it seemed obvious to him that Republicans realized the dynamics had changed since Scalise and others were shot.

Anti-gun advocates have argued the episode could have been deadly had the shooter been using a suppressor.

“The questions from the Democrats would have been pointed at the NRA, and I think we would have exposed how they managed to hijack the bill put their stuff in it,” said Grijalva. “And what happened to Steve Scalise, what happened with that shooting, it amplified it so much more.”

There is no way to know how the baseball shooting episode would have unfolded had a suppressor been involved. The same uncertainties apply to the shooting in Las Vegas.

Still, having a highly political and deeply polarizing interest group appear at a congressional hearing might have undermined the message supporters are trying to spread about the Hearing Protection Act — specifically, that the bill is about public health.

“We could have named this something else, some acronym or something to focus on the suppressor,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., the bill’s sponsor. “But really it’s about ultimately helping those who are hunters be able to protect their hearing and still enjoy their sport and be successful at it.”

A heated debate

Duncan, who is also sponsoring the larger SHARE Act, grew up hunting with his father. Today, he suffers from hearing loss in his left ear as a result of firing guns without earmuffs, headphones or suppressors, accessories that screw onto the barrels of guns to muffle the noise of bullet shots.

It currently takes 12 to 14 months to legally obtain a suppressor, because of the backlog of applications at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The background check requires a $200 stamp and high quality suppressors themselves can cost as much as $1,000.

The Hearing Protection Act would streamline and shorten the background check requirements to purchase a suppressor, making the process the same as that of purchasing a firearm.

Advocates for placing more restrictions on guns say this bill would make it easier for bad actors to get the tools they need to shoot individuals without being heard from a distance. Duncan and others point out suppressors are not “silencers,” and gunshots are still audible even with mufflers. Depending on the weapon — a rifle, for instance — it’s sometimes advisable to wear ear protection even while using a suppressor.

“There’s just so much misinformation out there and misconceptions,” Duncan said.

Duncan was particularly aggrieved by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi’s press conference last week, where the California lawmaker railed against the SHARE Act. She drew connections between the bill and the tragedy that had befallen Scalise, who had a few minutes earlier made his emotional return to Capitol Hill after months of rehabilitation.

“In the case of Steve Scalise, if you can hear (gunshots), you can run to where the tragedy is emanating from,” Pelosi said. “It’s horrible.”

Shortly thereafter, Duncan sent Pelosi a tweet, asking if she’d like to go to a shooting range to learn about suppressors.

Pelosi did not respond.

A delicate balance

Previous Congresses have passed versions of the SHARE Act with support from the bipartisan Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, a coalition of Republicans and moderate Democrats. Duncan is a co-chairman.

The Hearing Protection Act and other gun-related provisions — one would make it easier to facilitate the transportation of firearms while another would make it harder the ATF to classify certain bullets as “armor piercing” — could complicate that unity.

Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Texas, a caucus vice-chairman, said he would vote against the SHARE Act as currently written.

“I’m concerned about the silencer language that’s in there,” Veasey told McClatchy. “There are some good things in there, dealing with environment and wetland protections and what have you. But as someone who likes to shoot and has guns, I would never own a silencer, and I’m unsure why we would need to introduce that in the marketplace.”

Meanwhile, the bill might be on its way to becoming even more unpalatable for Democrats, particularly following the Las Vegas shooting; Democrats will be sure to argue the tragedy underscores the need to strengthen background checks before loosening existing gun regulations.

It even could become stickier for Republicans.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, told McClatchy he will lobby for a vote on his bill as an amendment to the SHARE Act that would even to even further deregulate the sale of suppressors, making it possible to buy them without background checks.

While King’s measure might be preferred by gun rights advocates, Republican leaders so far have made a conscious decision to focus on the Hearing Protection Act that’s less controversial by comparison. The NRA has also focused its advocacy on the Hearing Protection Act as the bill more likely to pass.

GOP leadership will ultimately have to weigh just how far they it wants to go, or if they want to to go anywhere. The SHARE Act is still not scheduled for a vote.

Emma Duman @emma_dumain