The mass shooting that left at least 58 dead in Las Vegas on Sunday night is expected to rekindle the debate in Congress over federal gun controls. But recent efforts in the Republican-controlled House have centered around loosening firearms laws, not tightening them.
Acts of mass gun violence, including last year’s massacre at an Orlando nightclub and the June shooting at a congressional GOP baseball practice, have done little to change the strong partisan divide on the issue: Most Democrats argue that the incidents heighten the need for tighter gun laws, while most Republicans believe Americans should have a greater ability to protect themselves from evildoers.
Last month, a House committee advanced a bill, the Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act, that would make it easier to purchase firearm suppressors, or silencers — which are currently treated akin to machine guns and explosives by federal authorities. Advocates of the measure, including the National Rifle Association, have cast the measure as a safety enhancement.
“The bill streamlines outmoded processes for acquiring this equipment to reduce hearing damage for sportsmen and noise at shooting ranges near residential areas,” said a summary prepared by the House Natural Resources Committee, which passed the bill on a party-line vote last month. It has not yet been scheduled for a floor vote.
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The legislation also includes provisions that would loosen restrictions on transporting firearms across state lines and prevent certain types of ammunition from being designated as “armor-piercing” and thus subject to tight federal oversight.
Opponents of the bill say that the silencer provision, in particular, could make it harder to identify a shooter during an incident such as the one in Las Vegas.
“Hunters need armor-piercing bullets? They need silencers?” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters last month. “If you can hear, you can run to where the tragedy is emanating from.”
The legislation has a companion bill in the Senate, introduced Jan. 9 by U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho. The Hearing Protection Act would treat suppressors like long guns — removing restrictions on them that date back to 1934. Buyers would no longer have to pay a $200 tax nor spend months registering their purchase with the federal government.
The Senate bill is pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee, according to Crapo.
“It is important to be accurate and note that a suppressor, often mistakenly referred to as a ‘silencer,’ will not completely silence a gunshot as is often portrayed in movies and the media,” Crapo told the Statesman via email on Monday.
“On average, suppressors diminish the noise of a gunshot by 20-35 decibels, roughly the same sound reduction provided by earplugs or earmuffs,” he said. By comparison, the most effective suppressors on the market can only reduce the peak sound level of a gunshot to around 110-120 decibels, Crapo explained. “According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, that is as loud as a jackhammer (110 decibels) or an ambulance siren (120 decibels).”
Other bills that have been submitted this Congress propose further loosening federal laws, including measures that would mandate that a concealed-carry permit issued in one state be honored in all other states. But those bills have not proceeded as far as the silencer legislation.
Republicans who reacted to the violence in Las Vegas early Monday did not call for any legislative response to the shooting. Law enforcement officials have not released details about the types of weapons that the shooter used or whether they were obtained legally or not.
Videos of the initial gunfire in Las Vegas appeared to indicate the use of a fully automatic, machine-gun-type weapon, which are tightly regulated by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and require a special license to own. Weapons of that type manufactured after 1986 generally cannot be privately owned.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., who was gravely wounded by the gunman who attacked Republicans in June, called the Las Vegas attack an “act of pure evil” and thanked those who responded and aided the victims.
“In this tragic moment, I encourage people across America to stand together in solidarity, and to support the Las Vegas community and all of those affected, especially by giving blood and encouraging others to do the same,” he said. “In the face of unspeakable evil, our whole nation must respond with countless acts of kindness, warmth and generosity.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said the tragedy “horrifies us all” and that the “whole country stands united in our shock, in our condolences, and in our prayers.”
But Democrats prepared to quickly go beyond well wishes to call for legislative action.
Former representative Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who suffered serious brain damage after being shot at a Tucson constituent event in 2011, is expected to speak at a Democratic news conference on Capitol Hill on Monday alongside her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly.
“This must stop — we must stop this,” Giffords said in a statement Monday, adding that she was praying for her former colleagues alongside the victims and their families.
“I am praying they find the courage it will take to make progress on the challenging issue of gun violence,” she said. “I know they got into politics for the same reason I did - to make a difference, to get things done. Now is the time to take positive action to keep America safer. Do not wait. The nation is counting on you.”
Giffords is set to appear alongside Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., chairman of the House Gun Violence Task Force.
Another lawmaker who spoke out Monday is Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who sought to tighten gun laws in the aftermath of the 2013 mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and five adults dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Legislation that would have expanded the use of federal background checks failed in the Senate five months after the Sandy Hook killings.
“It is positively infuriating that my colleagues in Congress are so afraid of the gun industry that they pretend there aren’t public policy responses to this epidemic,” Murphy said. “There are, and the thoughts and prayers of politicians are cruelly hollow if they are paired with continued legislative indifference. It’s time for Congress to get off its ass and do something.”
Gun-control advocates zeroed in - not on the type of gun used, but on laws that could change how the alleged shooter got it.
Kris Brown and Avery Gardiner, co-presidents of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said in an interview that Congress should again try to close loopholes in the national background check law. People can avoid a background check if they buy a gun online, in a private sale or at a gun show.
Federal law also allows a gun sale to go through if a background check hasn’t finished in three days, which was a factor in how Dylann Roof obtained a gun in the 2016 Charleston church massacre. The result, they said, is that an estimated one in five guns sold in this country avoids a background check.
“I think it’s a mistake when people focus on the difference between a semiautomatic weapon and a fully automatic weapon,” Gardiner said. “They are weapons of mass destruction. What we need now is a federal system so we’re not left with a patchwork of laws across the country.”
Idaho Statesman reporter Cynthia Sewell contributed.