Republican reactions to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union call for tougher gun laws have run the gamut, with Oklahoma Sen. James M. Inhofe asserting that the proposals are a “disaster” and Illinois Sen. Mark S. Kirk expressing optimism that lawmakers can find some common ground.
The most telling GOP reaction of all, however, might have been the noncommittal one that House Republican leaders gave Wednesday when asked whether they agree with the president’s declaration — repeated seven times during the emotional conclusion of his speech — that victims of gun violence “deserve a vote.”
“As I’ve made clear for weeks, if the Senate acts, we’ll be happy to take a look at what they do,” House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said during a news conference attended by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and other members of their leadership team.
Boehner’s wait-and-see approach is essentially the same one House GOP leaders have taken since the Dec. 14 massacre of 20 schoolchildren and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The Republican leaders have called for a comprehensive evaluation of the tragedy and possible responses to it, but have made clear that they are waiting on the Democratic-led Senate to act first.
Their position may reflect a political calculation that some of the most-controversial aspects of the president’s agenda, such as banning assault weapons or large ammunition magazines, will not make it out of the Senate anyway.
“A lot of the things the president talked about, he would have a hard time getting through the Senate,” House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said on MSNBC on Wednesday. “You have six senators from states where President Obama got 42 percent [of the presidential-election vote] and are up for re-election. That’s a very difficult play.”
In the meantime, key House Republicans have generally declined to discuss specific proposals in detail. None of the top three House GOP leaders — Boehner, Cantor and McCarthy — even mentioned gun violence in their written responses to the State of the Union speech Tuesday night.
House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, the Virginia Republican who would play an instrumental role in any of Obama’s gun agenda reaching the House floor, said that any gun proposals would need to be weighed against Americans’ Second Amendment rights. That is virtually the same position he took on Jan. 16, when Obama first announced his legislative plans.
“As we investigate the causes and search for solutions, we must ensure that any proposed solutions will actually be meaningful in preventing the taking of innocent life and that they do not trample on the rights of law-abiding citizens to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed rights,” Goodlatte said.
If anything, the State of the Union and the emotional images surrounding it — with more than two dozen shooting survivors and victims’ family members attending the speech as guests of Democrats — seemed designed to apply public pressure on House Republicans.
“Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence — they deserve a simple vote,” Obama said, as Democrats in the House chamber roared with approval.
After the speech, however, Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., predicted that House Republicans would delay action on guns rather than opposing the president’s proposals outright, calling that a way to “stand behind the mirror of propriety by not having it come to a vote.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.