The smallest bit of momentum for the most finely tailored gun-control legislation emerged Wednesday, as a select few Republican lawmakers expressed a modicum of openness to the idea of hearing testimony on the proposal.
But as is common with these debates, the likelihood of actual legislative action continued to seem remote as the country copes with the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.
At play is a narrowly written bill introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) which seeks to ban “bump stock” attachments that essentially allow semi-automatic weapons to fire like machine guns. Theses specific attachments were used by Stephen Paddock on his semi-automatic rifles as he fatally shot 59 people and injured more than 500 others from his hotel room perch at the Mandalay Bay hotel and casino in Las Vegas.
No Republicans have officially signed on to the legislation, which was introduced Wednesday morning alongside Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). But the purpose of the bill seemed to be enough for some to entertain it.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the third ranking Republican in the chamber, said the bump stock issue was something worth looking at—a sentiment echoed by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and, the following day, John Cornyn (R-TX).
“It seems odd that it’s illegal to convert a semiautomatic to an automatic, and it’s illegal to buy or hold an automatic weapon without the appropriate license, that then you could just modify how many times a weapon can shoot by using something you can buy legally,” Cornyn told reporters on Wednesday.
Calls for gun control have won over Republican lawmakers in the wake of similarly harrowing massacres, only to lose steam as the country’s collective consciousness moved on from those shootings. And even as Cornyn and others showed openness to considering Feinstein’s bill, it quickly became evident that a groundswell of support was not yet ready to emerge.
The Texas Republican later told The Daily Beast that he wasn’t endorsing a bill so much as discussion of it. “We ought to let the investigation run its course, and then Congress should have a hearing to see what aspects of it warrant federal involvement,” he said.
Other senators were less receptive.
“I haven’t read the bill. I think this is just another effort to chip away at the Second Amendment,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) told The Daily Beast. “But I want to read the bill.”
Even the moderate members of the party seemed reluctant to embrace Feinstein’s legislation before more was known.
“[Feinstein’s] staff has reached out to mine about it,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) told The Daily Beast. “I’m still awaiting the results of the investigation and learning about bump stocks, which I had never heard of prior to this shooting. And so I went online and I’ve seen the videos. And I think it’s worth having a hearing on the legislation. But I need much more information.”
The landscape was even less forgiving in the House, which has far more members uneasy with any legislation that could be construed as a gun control measure. Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX), himself a gun owner, said in an interview with The Hill on Wednesday afternoon that he would “have no problem from banning myself from owning [bump stocks].” But aides in that chamber scoffed at the idea that a bill would go anywhere.
“After every shooting, there is always talk of action and virtue signaling but ultimately nothing substantial ever comes of it,” a House Republican aide told The Daily Beast, granted anonymity to speak candidly. “Trump may decide that he wants a push for gun control, but it’s unlikely that will change this trend.”
That aide may have even overstated momentum. So far, there’s no indication that President Trump would take action on any prospective bill, with one White House official telling The Daily Beast that it would not take a position on a separate piece of legislation intended to ease restrictions on buying gun silencers.
The biggest hurdle Feinstein and other gun control advocates face is math. When Democrats controlled the Senate in 2013, they could not muster the votes to push a universal background check bill in the wake of the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 20 first graders. The party now finds itself in the minority, which grants it no power to get a bill to the floor. The one remaining Senate Democrat who voted against that 2013 measure—Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.)—said a bump-stock ban is “something that should be looked at,” but she declined to take a position either way.
The most likely path for Democrats to break the legislative logjam would be if the National Rifle Association came out in favor of the Feinstein proposal. But the gun lobby, as is customary in the wake of high-profile shootings, has remained largely quiet since Las Vegas.
A spokesman for the organization told The Daily Beast that the group would be getting back soon regarding a comment on the legislation. It never did.