Meaningful reform on guns or “school safety” appears to be nearing a quiet death, just weeks after demands for action peaked following the Parkland shooting.
Sources on Capitol Hill now universally say they do not expect legislation—even the narrowed down variety—to pass, while senior officials at the White House appear committed to spotlighting the influence they suggest violent video games are having on our nation’s youth.
Frustration with the inertia bubbled over this week, sparking a round of finger-pointing over who exactly and which party is at fault. But the outcome should not have caught anyone by surprise. Doing nothing in the aftermath of a prior mass-shooting is a right of passage for Congress.
“I would say no,” said one top Senate aide, when asked if there was any reason for optimism.
As the state of Florida moved new measures into law, hints of gridlock on the federal level grew more visible in recent days. The simplest of legislative responses—a bill that would strengthen federal reporting requirements on background checks for gun purchases known as Fix NICs—has garnered 62 Senate co-sponsors, including the second-ranking Senate Republican.
That is enough for passage. And yet, the bill has stalled.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has declined to bring it to the floor after several members objected to an expeditious consideration. Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell, noted that the senator himself is a co-sponsor and that the office was “looking at our options for moving this and other bipartisan legislation.” But absent spending the days to pass it through regular order—which would requiring pushing other agenda items aside—those other options are limited. GOP Hill sources noted that they could tuck the Fix NICs bill into another piece of legislation—say, an omnibus spending package—but that Democrats scuttle the vote out of a desire to see broader gun reforms passed. Democratic aides, for their part, have grown convinced that McConnell is simply pocketing the bill without outright killing it.
“Senate Republicans haven’t devoted one second to the gun safety debate on the Senate floor,” said Matt House, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s top spokesman. “That fact says everything about their willingness to buck the NRA and get something real done.”
The paralysis is deeper than just Fix NICs. Aides say there’s been virtually no discussions among senators on how to collectively build a legislative package. In the absence of such conversations, senators are moving similarly-themed items on independent tracks, making it harder to build consensus. To wit: Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) have introduced a bill to create a grant program for states to establish gun violence restraining orders that closely mirrors a bill introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and is slightly different from one introduced by another tandem—Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT)—which creates a federal court process for those restraining orders instead.
There are also mounting fears among Democrats that the main hearing in response to the Parkland shooting—a Wednesday session before the Senate Judiciary Committee—is going to be turned into a session to brow-beat the FBI and local law enforcement over the warning signs they missed leading up to it. Those fears were stoked both by the title of the hearing—“See Something, Say Something: Oversight of the Parkland Shooting and Legislative Proposals to Improve School Safety”—and by comments made by the committee chair, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) during a White House meeting, when he focused his attention largely on the role video games and Hollywood played in gun violence.
Grassley’s office did not return a request for comment.
The Trump administration, for its part, could not be clearer in its determination to let the news cycle move on from the shooting. A president who had, just last week, spoken about his ostensible desire to push comprehensive background checks and restrictions on buying AR-15s, spent the close of the week watching video games instead.
On Thursday afternoon, the White House convened a small, off-camera gathering of video game executives, lawmakers, right-wing activists critical of violent video games, and the president himself. The summit included the White House playing a minute-and-a-half-long montage of gory killings and torture in video games, which included scenes from popular titles such as 2009’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
According to sources familiar with the meeting, the conversations were generally cordial. President Trump commented on how “violent” and “bad” the montage was, and then asked the room, “What do you have to say about this?”
For the rest of the meeting, the president didn’t so much take a side as smile and nod along politely, regardless of who was speaking.
Envoys of the video game industry spent their time explaining to Trump the nuances of the already existing ratings system in place. Representatives of the Entertainment Software Association took out pages showing colorful charts and data to show the president that other advanced countries that consume violent video games and media at similar rates as the United States have dramatically lower gun-death rates.
The other side of the debate represented in the room pushed back. Dave Grossman, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and author, literally slid his book on the alleged corrosive effects of gore in gaming across the table toward President Trump.
“I did get to give the president a copy of my book, Assassination Generation—really the culmination of my life’s work,” Grossman told The Daily Beast, noting that Trump picked it up, looked at the cover, then set it down immediately. Grossman also showed the book to Marco Rubio, another attendee and senator from Florida, where the Parkland school shooting took place.
At the end of the meeting, Chief of Staff John Kelly grabbed the book off the table and took it away, the author said.
Grossman said he assured the president that the video game industry is “lying” when it says there is no research to support a correlation between violent behavior in teens and their video games.
“The video game industry is evil,” Grossman told The Daily Beast.
White House sources who spoke to The Daily Beast earlier this week and on Friday conceded that the meeting indeed went nowhere, and that it was all just going through the motions.
According to two sources who were in the room at the time, Trump did not bring up guns, except—fleetingly—mentioning the ones on-screen during the montage.