Can Congress Act This Time?
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
Congress does not return to Washington until February 24 following its Presidents’ Week recess. While Members want constituents to focus on DACA or the new tax law or the Mueller investigation many constituents’ voices will be fixed on guns. It will be interesting to watch whether any group of Members in either chamber will be moved sufficiently to seek congressional action on gun control now to prevent another tragedy like the one that occurred last week in Parkland, Florida. While a legislative package could include matters involved with police training, security, as well as keeping weapons out of the control of mentally disabled people, the major thrust of any legislative initiative must be focused first and foremost on curbing the availability of assault weapons. To date political courage has been in exceedingly short supply.
Perhaps the test case for political will could will emerge in the Senate race in Florida where Senator Bill Nelson is running for re-election. His likely opponent will be Florida Governor Rick Scott. Unlike the Governor, Nelson has already staked out a position in favor of controlling guns, especially assault weapons. If he can remain true to his position and put his political career on the line on this issue, Nelson might be able to galvanize bi-partisan action against what undoubtedly will be a major push back—if successful—for the National Rifle Association.
No one should have any illusions that a major legislative fight will succeed especially in light of the financial war chest that the NRA has at its disposal. While there are conflicting reports, it appears that the NRA spent at least $400-500 million in the 2016 campaign in support of various candidates. There is little doubt that it could exceed that amount in 2018.
On the other hand, it appears that this may truly be an opportunity to distract the nation from all the other highly partisan debates that the first year of Trump has already generated. Vulnerable Members of Congress seeking re-election will be loath to take a major stance against the NRA; but if there enough voices in support of gun control, the 2018 American voters may rise to the occasion to endorse those Members ready to stake their political career on this issue. It should not even be assumed that Trump would veto a bill to outlaw the sale assault weapons. Much may depend on how he perceives the wind to be blowing. On the other hand, by the time Congress returns from its recess, political distractions may have well left Parkland by the roadside just as it did with the Newtown tragedy.
In light of the tragic events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, some students have offered an intriguing suggestion to force the Congress and the White House to act; a nation-wide boycott of high schools. The potential impact this could have if it were to begin first in Florida could be effective, at least to begin serious action by the many weak-kneed political leaders.