A task force of House Democrats released a set of 15 policy principles Thursday that it hopes to shape into legislation to help reduce gun violence, less than a month after President Barack Obama issued a virtually identical set of recommendations.
The chairman of the roughly 70-member task force, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., announced the principles at a news conference alongside House Democratic leaders at a party retreat in Leesburg, Va. President Barack Obama addressed the House Democrats earlier Thursday and called on them to keep up the fight for tougher gun restrictions after the Dec. 14 elementary school shooting in Connecticut.
Thompson, a Vietnam veteran and hunter, emphasized the task force’s respect for the Second Amendment and said none of its ideas are intended to infringe on the rights of law-abiding citizens. The task force even listed as its first two policy principles support for the Second Amendment and support for Americans’ right to possess firearms for “legitimate purposes.”
At the same time, Thompson and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said they saw a need to act aggressively after the Connecticut massacre to ensure that such tragedies can be prevented in the future.
“I think we should move as boldly as possible and see where we come out, rather than throwing in the towel,” Pelosi said.
But in a notable sign of the divisiveness of gun proposals — even among Democrats — one of the task force’s vice chairs, Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., released a statement expressing “serious and honest concerns” about some of the principles.
“I believe we must . . . not propose any misguided or sweeping gun ban that does far too little to address the real causes of gun violence, and far too much in limiting the rights of sportsmen and responsible gun owners,” Dingell said in a statement that, while not specific, appeared to criticize a proposed renewal of the assault weapons ban. “We cannot afford to double down on any of the past policies we’ve implemented that have proven to do nothing to prevent such unspeakable acts like Tucson, Aurora or Virginia Tech from occurring.”
Although the task force originally had 12 vice chairs, freshman Rep. Bill Enyart of Illinois dropped off. His chief of staff said he wanted to listen to his constituents in southern Illinois.
Similarities to White House Plan
While the House task force’s principles have been under development for about six weeks and came after a series of meetings with stakeholders on all sides of the gun issue, its recommendations largely mirror those announced by Obama on Jan. 16. They include universal background checks on gun purchases, a ban on large-capacity ammunition magazines and a reinstatement of the lapsed assault weapons ban.
Like the White House, the House task force is calling for a new federal gun trafficking law, more funding for law enforcement, and improvements in school safety and mental health programs. Both proposals urge more research into gun violence and violent video games.
“The two proposals are very, very close in content and in intent and, I think, in effect,” Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said.
In fact, the National Rifle Association issued a statement contending that the House task force’s proposals “represent the Obama administration’s gun control wish list.”
But there are some differences. The president, for example, is specifically calling for the investment of $4 billion in the Community Oriented Policing Services program, which helps localities hire law enforcement officers. An expansion of that program has faced Republican criticism and is not specifically included in the House Democrats’ principles.
In what could be interpreted as a jab at the Justice Department, the House task force is calling for more aggressive federal prosecution of gun laws that are on the books now, a recommendation favored by the NRA and articulated by several Republicans during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence last week. “When prohibited persons attempt to buy guns, they are hardly ever prosecuted,” the task force’s principles state. “More can and must be done to make these investigations and prosecutions a priority.”
Both the White House and the House task force are calling for universal background checks for gun purchases, but the House group recommends that specific exemptions be included, “such as gifts between family members and temporary [gun] loans for sporting purposes.”
Thompson also pointed to other recommendations not specifically identified by the White House, such as the development of early intervention programs “that are designed to prevent the problems that lead to gun violence before those problems start,” and the creation of gun buyback programs and other steps that can get firearms out of the hands “of those who don’t want them or shouldn’t have them.”