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After 5-Week Recess, Congressional Lawmakers To Debate Gun Control


All right. Congress is back in session after a five-week recess. And one thing that took place during their recess - mass shootings - four of them - El Paso, Texas; Odessa, Texas; Dayton, Ohio; Gilroy, Calif. Lawmakers will debate gun control today. And according to Alain Stephens, we can expect to hear a lot more about gun control as we enter the 2020 election. Stephens is a reporter with The Trace, a website focused on gun-related news.

ALAIN STEPHENS: I think, maybe, we are at kind of this breaking point. I definitely think that this is part of kind of a overall Democratic strategy to make sure that they keep the topic of gun violence at the kind of American forefront, especially coming into an election.

GREENE: There are polls suggesting that a majority of Americans, including Republicans, want something done, and you have some Republican lawmakers who seem to recognize that. Is that the breaking point you're talking about?

STEPHENS: Right. I mean, exactly. I think as far as the Republicans are concerned, like, you know, when it comes to things like national security and the economy, they have had responses, but they don't really seem to have a great response to the gun violence. You know, they've talked about how there's kind of a problem with American morality, that possibly there's violent video games, but those are things that kind of the public has yet to really digest. And everyone's looking for something, maybe, a little bit more tangible, a little bit more rational, so the Democrats keep on kind of prodding that focal point over and over again to try to paint the Republican Party as a party of, you know, inaction.

GREENE: We hear a lot of different terms thrown around as to what might happen this week - expanded background checks, there are these so-called red flag laws that could take guns out of the hands of people who pose an imminent threat. I mean, what are you focusing on in terms of where there might be some real potential agreement?

STEPHENS: Well, I think the background checks - first and foremost, the Democrats have been able to get two background check bills passed in the House earlier this year. There is a Republican, Pat Toomey, who, you know, talked about possibly having the Republicans launch their own much more modest kind of background check bill. So there seems to be some traction in that area, and that's something that the Democrats, you know, are going to try to seize on that momentum.

The other thing is going to be red flag laws. You know, this is something that, again, there's been Republican interest in as well in the wake of Parkland. You know, a bunch of states enacted their own red flag law legislation. So, you know, there's been some discussions about if the fed can step in and create some sort of incentive for the remaining states to create their own red flag law legislation. So I wouldn't be surprised to see more kind of pushes on that.

GREENE: Can I ask you about the specific case of this tragedy in Odessa, Texas? The police there believe the gunman had been unable to buy a gun five years ago, and despite that, he managed to get one through a private seller who may have illegally built this AR-style weapon at home. If Congress were to do something and expand background checks, would it have done anything about that case?

STEPHENS: Right. So, I mean, it really kind of plays into this overarching thing where we see in politics that, essentially, lawmakers are playing whack-a-mole when it comes to firearms and firearm legislation because there are so many gaps. So private sales don't have background checks. Even if they do, you know, we have this issue of these homemade, unserialized (ph) weapons, where under the 1968 Gun Control Act, that's something that citizens are legally allowed to do. They're allowed to build weapons that don't have serial numbers, that don't have, you know, a background check process or paperwork attached to them. And it's very difficult to say if one certain law would be a magic bullet that would stop something like the Odessa shooter from getting a gun.

GREENE: Well, let me just finish by asking you for the reality check. I mean, you've got Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying he's happy to put gun legislation to a vote on the floor, but he has been very critical of new restrictions on guns. President Trump has sent a lot of mixed messages but seems to be open to something Democrats are pushing hard, oftentimes, for ideas the Republicans would never consider. Do you see something real happening this week, or is it going to be a lot of talk from both sides?

STEPHENS: I think it's going to be a lot of talk from both sides. Essentially, what Mitch McConnell has done - he's created a moving target for the Democrats. He says that he will back anything that the president backs. But like, as you mentioned, the president has a tendency to throw support behind certain legislative ideas in the aftermath of a shooting only to kind of reconvene with stakeholders and, essentially, change course. It really puts the Democrats in a difficult place, and I think the Democrats know this. I think what they're really trying to do is, essentially, launch an overarching political strategy that more so plays into the oncoming presidential elections that keeps gun control as a political talking point.

GREENE: Alain Stephens reports for the gun-related news site The Trace. Alain, thanks a lot.

STEPHENS: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUILTY GHOSTS' "WOES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.