Half a million people are expected to come to Washington Saturday for the March for Our Lives with a goal that leading members of Congress see as a futile mission: To prod Congress to take “comprehensive” action on gun control “immediately.”
Trouble is, Congress is scheduled to leave Friday for a 16-day spring recess, almost guaranteeing that any momentum from the march and the massive media coverage will probably fade before lawmakers return to work on April 9.
“The timing is not good,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who sponsored a measure to raise the age to buy assault weapons from 18 to 21.
Even when lawmakers return, ardent gun control advocates don’t see the march’s impact being felt quickly anyway. Democratic senators said any meaningful reform on gun control won’t occur under a Republican majority. The GOP controls the White House and the House and Senate.
The gun control lawmakers’ best hope: Keeping the spirit and connections the march will generate going during the election season so like-minded candidates can win in November.
Everytown for Gun Safety reports receiving more than $800,000 in unsolicited donations within the past month and is challenging members of Congress who take donations from the National Rifle Association. Everytown is releasing political ads and listing candidate endorsements.
“We’re going to make an A rating by the NRA a black mark, a scarlet letter,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, part of the Everytown group.
She’s been working for legislative progress on gun control for five years. “The only way to get change on this issue is to change our lawmakers — state and federal,” Watts said.
Everytown officials plan to release a list of candidates for state and federal offices this year that back gun safety measures. No timetable has been set for the release.
NRA officials could not be reached for comment.
Two-thirds of Americans support stricter gun laws, according to a February Quinnipiac poll, which represents a 20-point swing in two years. Support for universal background checks is almost universal at 97 percent. The poll was taken Feb. 16-19, just after a gunman killed 17 people at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
“I think it’s pretty clear that Republican leadership wants to totally avoid this issue, and millions of kids across the country are going to make it equally clear to Republicans that they’re going to pay a huge price at the polls if they continue to ignore guns,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a leading advocate for gun control.
“I think it’s amazing that they didn’t even try to bring a debate in Congress before the march,” Murphy continued. “It will be clear as day to these kids on Saturday that the current leadership in Congress does not want to deal with this issue.”
GOP leadership downplayed the march’s importance.
“There have been a number of people coming to Washington to express their views on guns and lots of other issues. I met with a Parkland student the other day who is a strong supporter of the Second Amendment,” said House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., who was unaware of the March for Our Lives. “We’ve been hearing more of one side of that, but others feel differently, and that’s how democracy works.”
Scalise was badly wounded in June when a gunman shot him and four others as lawmakers practiced for a baseball game. He has said his views about the right to bear arms has not changed.
NRA officials have met with President Donald Trump recently. Chris Cox, the NRA’s lobbying arm executive director, tweeted after one meeting that Trump and Vice President Mike Pence “don’t want gun control.”
The NRA supports beefing up enforcement of existing laws on background checks, and has rejected other key congressional gun regulation efforts. The group has also supported bills to increase security in schools, including arming teachers.
Saturday’s march was organized by students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The march is supported by gun control advocacy groups such as Everytown for Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and the Brady Campaign. More than 800 marches are planned in cities around the world on the same day.
The stated mission, according to the website, is “to demand that a comprehensive and effective bill be immediately brought before Congress to address these gun issues.”
Immediately isn’t likely for comprehensive legislation.
“We’ll take as many baby steps as we can get until the midterm elections, when we can get lawmakers who will rise to the moment,” said Watts of the background check fix and legislation to increase school safety funding. “But those are still baby steps, and right now we want a big stride.”
Scalise said he didn’t see any marches as reason to bring more gun control legislation to the House floor. The House has passed legislation to increase funding for school security that could be used to increase personnel, install threat assessment systems recommended by the FBI and implement anonymous reporting tools for use by students and teachers.
Watts called it “laughable” to think this Congress might have done something on the issue if the march wasn’t happening before a recess. Last week students arranged a school walkout in honor of the Parkland victims, with thousands coming to the steps of the Capitol while Congress was in session. It prompted mentions during hearings and press conferences, but still no action.
“This Congress has had five years to act since Sandy Hook, and they’ve done nothing,” Watts said. “Nothing.”
Watts said the ultimate legislative goal is to win passage of legislation that failed in 2013 in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, where a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at the Newtown, Conn. elementary school in 2012.
That bill would have mandated criminal background checks on all gun sales besides those between family members and friends, covering gun shows and internet sales. It also created a commission to study causes of violence.
Other goals today involving gun safety include making it more difficult for domestic abusers to obtain guns, raising the age to buy assault weapons from 18 to 21 and implementing red flag laws, which allow law enforcement to temporarily confiscate guns from people deemed dangerous.
Despite the march’s call for “immediate” action, Watts said five years of pushing for reform has convinced her this is a marathon and not a sprint. The Parkland shooting energized the movement – Moms Demand Action has an additional 140,000 volunteers and 1.7 million new supporters since the shooting – but she said Congress is where the movement ends, not where it begins.
“We’ve been making serious, incremental changes at the state level, and I think this will be a huge issue in the midterm elections, and in 2020 when we can elect a new president,” Watts said.