WASHINGTON — After the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Senator Mitch McConnell had a message for his Kentucky constituents as his 2014 re-election fight loomed.
“I want you to know that I will be doing everything in my power as Senate Republican leader, fighting tooth and nail, to protect your Second Amendment rights,” Mr. McConnell, a staunch opponent of limits on gun ownership, said in an automated call. He then helped quash expanded background check legislation backed by President Barack Obama and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers.
Responding to this month’s mass shootings in El Paso, Tex., and Dayton, Ohio, Mr. McConnell, his re-election fight again just ahead, was more measured. “Senate Republicans are prepared to do our part,” he said. But what exactly that “part” is has become increasingly unclear as the weeks pass.
Immediately after the shootings, President Trump opened the door to expanded background checks and other proposals to keep guns away from unstable people, eliciting Mr. McConnell’s promise to engage in talks about potential legislation. But the president then backed away from his position, saying that sufficient background checks were in place and the focus should instead be on mental health.
The retreat culminated in reports this week that Mr. Trump had told gun rights activists that he would not support universal background checks. Then the president muddled the issue yet again on Wednesday.
“I have an appetite for background checks,” he told reporters. “We’ll be doing background checks. We’re working with Democrats. We’re working with Republicans.”
Senate Republicans seem to have fallen into the morass. Top party members in the Senate have thrown cold water on the idea that Congress would pass even initiatives that enjoy bipartisan support, such as a national “red flag” law that would allow law enforcement and family members to go to court to get weapons removed from people who exhibit signs of being a danger.
Senator Ron Johnson, the Wisconsin Republican who is chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said on Capitol Hill on Tuesday that he thought “the debate really hasn’t changed much at all” after the most recent shootings. He said he did not expect significant legislation to reach the president.
Yet other Republican senators said they remain engaged in substantive talks among themselves and with White House officials about expanded background checks, mental health provisions and other proposals. No one is backing away despite the president’s waffling, they said.
“I have urged all parties to come together and come up with a responsible gun safety package that can pass the Senate,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine.
Mr. McConnell is famously loath to press forward with any legislation that sparks division among Republicans. He had to be strong-armed into bringing a criminal justice overhaul to the floor despite backing from the president and the vast majority of Senate Republicans because of the objections of a handful of vocal conservatives.
He also often cites an unwillingness to press legislation that Mr. Trump does not wholly support, saying it is a waste of time to send legislation to the president’s desk only to draw a veto. “I want to make a law, not just see this kind of political sparring going on endlessly, which never produces a result,” he said during an interview with a Louisville radio station when discussing gun legislation this month.
So if Mr. McConnell is looking for a way out of taking up gun safety legislation, he can just point to the president’s perceived opposition, throw in some criticism of Democrats and gun control activists for overreaching and try to move on.
Democrats say they do not intend to make it easy for him to do so.
“Senator McConnell has been begging President Trump to let him off the hook when it comes to passing universal background checks legislation to address the gun violence epidemic,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader. “But on behalf of the families of the victims of gun violence and the 90 percent of Americans who support universal background checks, Senate Democrats will keep the pressure up and not let Senator McConnell off the hook.”
A refusal to take action not only would draw the condemnation of Democrats, but it could also further endanger some Republicans facing re-election — and, by extension, the party’s control of the Senate. Despite strong opposition from the gun lobby, expanded background checks and some other gun restrictions draw support from most voters in polls, particularly the women and suburbanites that senators such as Cory Gardner, the embattled Colorado Republican, will need next year to hold on to their seats.
Gun safety advocates say that they employed the issue in 2018 to oust a House Republican from Colorado, and that they intend to keep the heat on Mr. McConnell.
“I think that the question McConnell is going to have to answer is, is he going to send his members home empty-handed after a series of unspeakable tragedies,” said John Feinblatt, the president of the gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.
Yet another gun stalemate in the Senate is likely to amplify one of the new nicknames for Mr. McConnell, “Massacre Mitch,” derived from his blockade of gun legislation, including a House-passed background check bill that Democrats want to be the basis of any final legislation.
Mr. McConnell not only has an extensive personal record in support of gun rights, but has also extended his pro-gun views to his main senatorial passion — judicial confirmations — by pushing the installation of judges and Supreme Court justices with an expansive view of the Second Amendment while opposing those he considers suspect on the issue.
McConnell allies note that he has not opposed all legislation arising out of past shootings and that he supported a plan to bolster school safety programs and to improve the record-keeping used in background checks.
Still, Republican colleagues say they were somewhat surprised by Mr. McConnell’s embrace of negotiations over new gun legislation. At the same time, Democrats viewed Mr. McConnell’s position as barely sufficient to ease the pressure on him. And they believed it helped him justify his refusal to bring the Senate back from recess to act on proposals, an approach that sapped some momentum from the drive for legislation.
The outcome will be impossible to predict before lawmakers, now scattered across the country on their August recess, return to Washington in early September to consult with one another in person. Any legislative progress will ultimately require the endorsement of the president, Democrats’ willingness to accept less than they would have preferred, and a calculation by Mr. McConnell that the political reward for gun legislation exceeds the political risk.
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