Congress, unable to pass gun safety laws, gets a different idea

Student survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are greeted as they arrive at a rally for gun control reform on the steps of the state Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla.
Student survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are greeted as they arrive at a rally for gun control reform on the steps of the state Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. AP

Congress keeps trying — and failing — to address gun safety by restricting firearms and improving mental health services.

But in the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., a Senate Republican and Democrat are trying a new approach that brings the two ideas together.

Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., want to permit law enforcement officers or family members to petition federal courts to remove weapons from people who demonstrate a serious risk to themselves or others.

Upon granting the petition, federal courts would have 72 hours to convene a hearing and issue a ruling, then inform the relevant federal and state agencies of the decision.

Under their plan, an initial, 14-day “extreme risk protection order,” or ERPO, would take away someone’s guns if he proved to pose an immediate risk. A federal court could extend that ERPO for 180 days following further review.

This likely won’t be enough to satisfy gun rights groups. Gun Owners of America opposes ERPOs in all scenarios.

“This is very dangerous for our rights … where one can lose their rights for what they ‘might do’ in the future,” said GOA executive director Erich Pratt in a statement.

Graham and Blumenthal have some momentum. The policies they are pushing have already been enacted in five states, including Vice President Mike Pence’s home of Indiana. President Donald Trump has signaled support for a “red flag” bill to empower law enforcement to seize firearms from possible bad actors.

The senators stressed their bill was designed to protect an individual’s due process rights. They’re likely trying to assuage concerns following Trump’s remarks last week that he was more concerned about taking guns away from potential criminals before scheduling a court hearing.

The Senate is showing a willingness to consider new proposals. The plan by Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, to strengthen background check laws has drawn an equal number of Democratic and Republican sponsors and is close to the 60 supporters it needed to overcome a filibuster.

And the Graham-Blumenthal bill has support from two of the biggest advocates for more restrictive gun laws, The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Everytown for Gun Safety — though Avery W. Gardner, Brady Campaign co-president, cautioned even if this proposal could find the votes to pass, Congress can’t stop there.

“This bill is necessary, but not sufficient,” she said. “We know about the other gaps in the nation’s gun laws, and we should be pursuing the solutions that will save the most lives.”

Graham and Blumenthal unveiled their bill a day after Florida Sens. Marco Rubio, a Republican and Bill Nelson, a Democrat, unveiled a similar but weaker proposal.

The Rubio-Nelson plan would give states various financial incentives to establish these types of preventive policies on their own terms, a framework that’s been previously floated other lawmakers at other times. Graham and Blumenthal’s bill would go much further, making the policies federal mandates in all 50 states.

Rubio was doubtful the Graham-Blumenthal bill would get the 60 votes needed to advance in the Senate, saying colleagues would be concerned about placing new burdens on federal court systems and would chafe at being told what to do in their own jurisdictions.

“We can incentivize states to fully report,” Rubio added. “We can threaten them by cutting off money. But you can’t compel them by law in some cases to do these sorts of things. That’s an issue.”

Blumenthal countered that the national outcry for stronger action following the Parkland shooting signaled a need for what he and Graham were proposing.

“(Rubio) may have made the point that this law will be more difficult than their proposal, which provides only vague incentives for the states to act … (and) minimal grants,” said Blumenthal. “In my view, the most powerful incentive for the states to act is an aroused and outraged public.”

Graham said he would support the Rubio-Nelson proposal, but his and Blumenthal’s plan would assure all states have mechanisms in place to prevent another disturbed young person who had presented “red flags” that he intended to do harm — another Nikolas Cruz, the accused Parkland shooter — from carrying out a horrible deed.

“I think most Americans believe there should have been a system in place to do something about Nikolas Cruz before he went into the school, given all the information,” Graham said. “All I can tell the country is, ‘we’re giving you that venue.’’’

Alex Daugherty of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

Emma Dumain: 202-383-6126, @Emma_Dumain