How Congress Is Reacting to the Texas Church Shooting

There's a common thread in the Republican response to the tragedy in Sutherland Springs

Mourners visit a makeshift memorial near First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on November 6th. Credit: Todd Heisler/The New York Times

The massacre a little over a week ago that left 26 dead and another 20 injured at a church in a sleepy Texas town has rekindled the debate about the nation's gun laws at the Capitol. Unlike in the aftermaths of other recent mass shootings, over the last week a flurry of bills were introduced aimed at stemming the nation's glaring gun violence epidemic. But there's a common thread in Republicans' response: Instead of passing stricter gun laws or bans, they want federal agencies and the Department of Defense to take the lead.

Law enforcement officials believe a domestic dispute was the shooter's motive for targeting his in-laws' sanctuary, even though they weren't there Sunday. When lawmakers learned the Air Force failed to report the Texas shooter's history of domestic violence, many quickly penned letters to Pentagon leaders pressuring them to comply with their own requirement that they report the criminal history of those in their ranks to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

The Pentagon's internal rules require every branch of the armed services to report felony convictions to the federal background check system, but Congress never passed a law requiring it, which Republican Sen. Jeff Flake wants to change. The retiring senator introduced a bill this week to force the military to report convictions with other federal agencies.

"It appears this loophole allowed a man who was clearly unfit to purchase a firearm to do so at the cost of 26 innocent lives," Flake told reporters at a Capitol Hill press conference when he introduced the bill. "This bill will ensure that a situation like this will not happen again and that anyone, anywhere convicted of domestic violence is kept from legally purchasing a gun."

Flake's bill is also sponsored by Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich, who says this effort should be easy both parties to get behind.

"Our country is weary from violence and grief, and the American people deserve meaningful action from Congress. With each new tragic shooting, we see clear examples of how we are failing to keep guns out of the hands of those who would turn them against our communities," Heinrich told reporters. "The Department of Defense has a responsibility to report these convictions and ensure the NICS database is accurate to prevent tragedies like the Sutherland Springs shooting. This is something Republicans and Democrats can agree on and action we must take to prevent future tragedies."

In the House, a Republican congressman wants to go even further. Rep. Ryan Costello, a moderate from the suburbs of Philadelphia, is teaming up with a Democratic colleague to compel states to report people convicted of domestic violence to the national database. A 2016 government report found that some 6,700 weapons were illegally transferred to people convicted of domestic violence from 2006 to 2016, and studies show abused women are five times more likely to be killed if their partner has a gun.

Costello's bill would require states to accurately report domestic violence convictions in order to be eligible for federal grants to improve their record keeping on all criminal behavior. It would also remove some barriers that currently bar certain states from receiving federal grants intended to help them better report the criminal and mental illness history of residents. The Republican says he thinks the carrot-and-stick approach will help win over GOP support on the legislation specifically focused on domestic violence.

"What I'm trying to do is to take a very narrow issue here and get it directly addressed so that we will reduce the number of people that should have guns and not get into broader issues which will complicate and confuse," Costello tells Rolling Stone. "I'm optimistic that we can actually accomplish the objective, which is to keep guns out of the hands of those who have domestic abuse convictions. I do not know one person that would disagree with that premise, and my legislation is intended to accomplish that objective."

But now the struggle is to get Republican leaders to bring any of these bipartisan bills to the floor for a vote. Party leaders have avoided this because then an array of controversial gun-control amendments could get offered that they want to shield their rank-and-file members from voting on, like the assault weapons ban reintroduced last week by California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Last week Senate Republicans did announce the Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on bump stocks – the plastic device that was used in Las Vegas to make the shooter's guns fire like they were automatic weapons. But Speaker Paul Ryan has already said he wants the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to tackle that issue internally without any congressional action, which has Democrats skeptical of their Republican counterparts, who control which bills will be debated and voted upon.

"I think they want to avoid doing the obvious thing. They kicked it to ATF – now ATF is saying that there would need to be a law," a frustrated Sen. Brian Schatz tells Rolling Stone. "We're lawmakers. It's not that complicated."

Schatz and other Democrats have for years been calling for requiring universal background checks for gun purchases, which is why he remains skeptical about the noticeable change in tone at the Capitol in the week since the Texas shooting.

"The irony of the conversation around the Air Force's failure is it is literally a background check, and it demonstrates that background checks can work," Schatz says. "This is broadly popular, but they are doing everything they can to make it about something small, and make it not their jurisdiction. But this is a national emergency, and it is clearly the job of Congress to fix it."