The Valentine’s Day shooting at a Florida high school and impassioned pleas from survivors to pass new laws on guns have prompted the White House and Congress to take notice.
With a flurry of potential policy changes suggested by President Donald Trump, lawmakers on Capitol Hill may be persuaded to act just as Democrats mount a campaign to take back legislative control in the midterm elections.
One of the seats Democrats are targeting is held by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican lawmaker who has received top marks on policy positions from the National Rifle Association as well as nearly $15,000 in direct campaign donations since 2003. She faces Lisa Brown, a Democrat seeking to restore her party’s control of a seat then-Speaker of the House Tom Foley lost, some say, due to his support of a federal weapons ban passed in 1994.
The first spark of a gun debate in the race came last week when Brown publicly called out McMorris Rodgers for accepting a speaking invitation in Stevens County where an AR-15-style rifle was scheduled to be raffled. National news outlets picked up the story. The raffle was canceled, a decision the congresswoman said she supported.
Brown would not say this week whether she’d support the reintroduction of a federal ban on certain types of weapons, including the AR-15, until seeing how such a policy would affect gun owners who have bought them in the years since the previous federal ban was allowed to expire.
“It depends on what the bill actually said, and how it would impact existing weapons, such as the 8 million AR-15-style weapons in circulation,” Brown said. Her figures are based on an estimate by the NRA. Other research firms and polls have suggested lower numbers in circulation.
Eastern Washington has not escaped the tragedy of gun violence in schools. Last fall, a gunman at Freeman High School killed classmate Sam Strahan with a handgun. The gunman was also armed with an AR-15, the style of rifle that has prompted much of the recent discussion around changing gun laws. The AR-15 jammed and the shooter used the handgun to kill Strahan and injure three girls.
Democrats seeking the Eastern Washington seat since Foley have taken a careful stance on the gun ban, given the region’s contingent of hunters and sportsmen. Rich Cowan, McMorris Rodgers’ opponent in 2012, opposed the ban. Joe Pakootas, who ran twice unsuccessfully against McMorris Rodgers, said during a televised debate in October 2016 that the ban should be reinstated.
McMorris Rodgers has long cited the Second Amendment in her support of gun rights measures and flatly rejected a potential ban in an interview on gun policy late last week. But she indicated a willingness to soften on some gun control issues.
The congresswoman said she’s in favor of ending federal budget language that prevented federal funding of research into the causes of gun violence, language that has been present in other spending bills the congresswoman has supported in the past. Alex Azar, Trump’s secretary of Health and Human Services, said last week he believes the so-called “Dickey amendment” doesn’t prevent the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from conducting research into the causes of gun violence. McMorris Rodgers, in the interview, said that language should still be removed from any spending bills.
The congresswoman also supports banning the sale and possession of bump stocks, attachments that enable a semi-automatic rifle to fire faster, a move also supported by Trump. The NRA has argued against a ban.
“President Trump has now made his recommendation, as far as an administrative response,” McMorris Rodgers said. “I also believe Congress should act.”
Congress didn’t move to change the policy in October after the shooting in Las Vegas, where a man using the device killed 58 people and injured hundreds more. The sale of bump stocks received the OK from federal agencies as early as 2010, during the Obama administration, according to the political fact-checking site Politifact.
Brown, who also supports the ban on bump stocks, criticized congressional leadership for failing to take action on policies that she said might have saved lives.
“I would put Rep. McMorris Rodgers in the category of congressional members who have not responded on this topic, to their constituents, with what they expect,” Brown said. “And they expect more than condolences.”
The congresswoman’s campaign pointed to a letter she sent after the Las Vegas attack to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives requesting review of bump stocks. McMorris Rodgers also voted for a hybrid piece of legislation passed out of the House of Representatives in December that, along with allowing anyone with a concealed carry permit to carry a concealed weapon into other states with such permits, also included measures intended to strengthen the national background check system. The bill was passed largely along party lines, though the portion addressing background checks has the support of top Democrats in the Senate.
Both pieces of legislation received the endorsement of the NRA, but other gun lobby groups, including Gun Owners of America, said the background check measures went too far. The bill has not received a vote in the Senate.
“Cathy has supported common-sense policies to stop mass murders and shootings while making certain to protect the rights of law-abiding citizens,” said Ashley Stubbs, a spokeswoman for the McMorris Rodgers campaign.
Brown has received the attention of several national Democratic-leaning groups in her bid to unseat McMorris Rodgers, who has held the office since 2005. That includes the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The Huffington Post reported Tuesday morning the organization sent an email to candidates in the Northeast shortly after the Las Vegas shooting urging them in all caps not to politicize the event.
Gary Crooks, Brown’s campaign spokesman, said she did not receive that communication. It was sent in early October, before the group announced its interest in Eastern Washington.
“If we had, the campaign would have ignored it,” Crooks said.
In a break with Trump, who tweeted last week the legal age for owning a semi-automatic weapon should be raised to 21, McMorris Rodgers said it should stay at 18.
“My initial reaction to this question, is that men and women join the military at age 18,” McMorris Rodgers said. “At this point, I’m not inclined to make a change.”
Brown said she supports raising the age to 21, as well as prohibitions on the size of rifle magazines. A former professor at Eastern Washington University, Brown also said the federal government shouldn’t be pushing for the arming of teachers, as the president has suggested in recent days.
“It doesn’t address the gun violence people are experiencing in churches, movie theaters and other public events,” Brown said. “I believe it could actually increase the danger in the classrooms.”
McMorris Rodgers would not rule out arming teachers, but said that a larger community discussion needs to take place. Federal funding should go toward providing mapping of schools and emergency management plans, she said.
“I think this needs some more work. We need to bring people together in this community, with recommendations as to what makes sense,” McMorris Rodgers said.
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