What's next for the House "assault weapons ban" legislation?

What's next for the House "assault weapons ban" legislation?
AP Photo/Susan Walsh

House Democratic leadership is still expressing at least some optimism that HR 1808, which was pulled from the House Rules Committee calendar on Wednesday, can be revived once lawmakers return to Capitol Hill after their August recess, but it sounds like they’re still not assured of the 216 votes needed for passage.

Buried deep within the Washington Post’s newest report on how Democratic infighting has led to a number of their bills stuck in legislative limbo is a telling aside about the hesitations that some Democrats are still expressing about the gun ban bill.

The recent string of mass shootings across the country — particularly after 19 children and two teachers were killed at a Uvalde, Tex., elementary school — motivated many Democrats to reignite a push to vote on an assault weapons ban for the first time in decades.

But there was uncertainty that an assault weapons ban has the votes in a chamber where Democrats have only a razor-thin four-member majority . Leaders had hoped to tack the ban onto the tranche of public safety bills, which included police funding as well as community policing measures and mental health response teams, to ensure it could pass this month. Members now hope to reconsider the package by mid-August, when they return from a break.

The Post says that there “was” uncertainty about the vote count for the gun ban, but they don’t provide any real evidence that Nancy Pelosi has a solid head count in favor of approval. Instead, it sounds like several Democrats are still very much on the fence.

A majority of Democrats agree on several other bills that make up the legislative package, including dissolving a civil liability law protecting gunmakers.

But leadership’s decision to pull the public safety bills until there is a compromise has made it difficult to vote on just the assault weapons ban, since it relies on all but four Democrats to support it.

Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), who recently lost his primary bid to a liberal Democrat, has publicly said he would vote against the ban. Other front-line members representing rural districts also expressed hesitancy in backing it.

“I have no comment right now until I find out a little bit more. A lot more,” said Rep. Tom O’Halleran (Ariz.), who is considered one of the most endangered Democrats this cycle. “Some of it is very surprising.”

HR 1808 was introduced in March of last year, so O’Halleran and other undecided Democrats have had plenty of time to peruse the text before now. I think what’s really surprising to endangered Democrats is the strategy that Nancy Pelosi has adopted: pairing funding for law enforcement with a ban on some of the most commonly-sold firearms in the country.

As much as Democrats have tried to run away from the defund the police rhetoric espoused by many of their members over the past couple of years, progressive opposition to grants for local law enforcement appears to be strong enough to block the bill from passing on its own, which is why Pelosi decided to make this a package deal. Democrats representing deep blue districts were expected to hold their nose and vote for more funding for police, while those representatives in purple and light blue (or even slightly red) districts were supposed to grit their teeth and endorse a gun ban. I’m guessing there’s gonna be a lot of arm twisting on the part of Pelosi and her lieutenants during the recess, but the closer we get to Election Day the less likely it is that endangered Democrats are going to want to sign off on a gun ban… especially one that has no chance of actually becoming law.

It’s striking to me, however, that increasing funding for law enforcement is more controversial among Democrats than criminalizing the sale, purchase, or transfer of tens of millions of lawfully-possessed firearms, especially at a time when violent crime levels in many cities are 30% higher or more than they were pre-pandemic and many departments are seeing staffing shortfalls of hundreds of officers. While we don’t have an exact whip count, based on the reporting by POLITICO, the Washington Post, and other outlets it sure sounds like there are more Democrats objecting to the law enforcement grants than there are opposed to the ban on so-called assault weapons.

Among voters, however, the opposite is true. Support for increasing police funding is far more popular than a ban on “assault weapons”, which, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll, now draws support from 49% of respondents; the lowest recorded number for the pollster since it began asking that question.

This is a debacle for those congressional Democrats in danger of being swept away in a red wave election, even if Pelosi does manage to cobble together enough votes to pass her package of gun control and police funding. At a time when many Americans are so worried about violent crime and their own personal safety that even people who once hated guns are now carrying one for self-defense, Democrats are more inclined to put gun control laws aimed at the law-abiding on the books than give local law enforcement some extra funds to take violent criminals off the street. That’s a tough message to swing district voters in any environment, but if Pelosi insists on packaging these two bills together just months before Election Day it’s going to be a gift to the Republicans challenging Democratic House members like Tom O’Halleran.