President Barack Obama had a message for congressional Democrats on the eve of his announcement that he was acting to combat gun violence: Don't let Congress off the hook.
Three Connecticut Democrats, Sens. Christopher S. Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, and Rep. Elizabeth Esty, who represents Newtown, Conn., attended an hourlong meeting with Obama and Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Monday evening along with other members of the House Democrats' Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, where they discussed Obama's executive actions that he would announce the following day, as well as their next moves. “The president underscored a number of times last night that this couldn’t be the end of the conversation in 2016," Murphy said in a Tuesday phone interview. "He wanted us to message this in a way that kept the pressure on Congress."
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On Tuesday morning, the president announced a series of executive actions that included clarifying a rule to ensure that those who sell firearms at gun shows or on the Internet must have a license and conduct background checks; investing in the mental health system, and calling for more resources for agencies that oversee background checks.
“I think to many of us these appear to be pretty modest steps," Murphy said. "They’re important, they’re necessary, but they’re totally insufficient, and there’s little room left for the president to act on his own."
Murphy has taken to the Senate floor numerous times to call on Congress to address gun violence. But, to keep the pressure, he acknowledged there isn't much more he can do from inside the chamber.
“I wish I had a dozen new tricks up my sleeve but I don’t. The reality is the pressure on Congress is going to come from the outside, not the inside,” Murphy said. "We’re going to need a few cycles in which we win some elections based on the issue of candidates’ positions on guns."
Winning elections, Murphy argued, is how to address GOP arguments that Congress tried but fell short on more comprehensive gun measures. Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., argued in a Monday statement that Congress has attempted to act on these measures, and they failed.
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"[Obama's] proposals to restrict gun rights were debated by the United States Senate, and they were rejected," Ryan said, referring to a 2013 bipartisan bill expanding background checks that was filibustered. "No president should be able to reverse legislative failure by executive fiat, not even incrementally."
"That’s why this is just as much about winning elections," Murphy countered.
Murphy said Congress is not likely to act on bills relating to background checks, but he pointed to lifting a ban on gun violence research, which became an issue in the year-end spending negotiations, and barring those on a terrorist watch list from purchasing firearms as potential areas for action.
Murphy also suggested there could be bipartisan support for increased funds for the agencies that oversee the background check system and gun law enforcement. Obama said he would be calling on Congress to allow for more funding for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives so the agency can hire 200 new agents and investigators.
"I think it’s time to call the [National Rifle Association's] bluff. The gun lobby’s entire response to mass shootings is to enforce the laws on the books,” Murphy said. "The reality is there just aren't enough ATF agents in order to police gun sales that are exploding in number and venue.”
If Republicans, Murphy argued, want to enforce existing laws, they should support increased resources for the agency that enforces those laws.
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