GOP leaders play down need to pass gun reforms

Breaking their silence on the issue, Republican leaders Tuesday played down the need to pass gun reforms.

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“We shouldn’t be banning guns for law-abiding citizens. We should be focusing on making sure that citizens who should not get guns in the first place don’t get those guns,” House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters.

Ryan isn’t backing any of the new gun proposals currently being floated. Instead, the Speaker repeatedly stressed that the House already passed a bill to reinforce background checks, the so-called “Fix NICS” legislation, and urged the Senate to do the same.

Win McNamee/Getty ImagesSpeaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) answers questions during a press conference at the Capitol, Feb. 27, 2018.

NICS stands for the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and the proposed fix would be to improve state reporting to the database.

Asked if he feels he’s “doing enough,” Ryan pointed to a bigger cultural problem.

“I think this speaks to bigger questions of our culture. What are we teaching our kids? Look at the violence in our culture,” he said. “And then do we have the kind of mental health laws that we need on the books?”

“That’s where we should focus our problem to be solved, which is the people who shouldn’t get guns without trying to take away a citizen’s rights,” Ryan said.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell agrees they should act on Fix NICS in the Senate, explaining he’s “not claiming in any way that it’s a panacea, but at least shows some progress for dealing with one element of the problem.”

But even with the narrow changes included in this bill, which both parties, and the NRA, support, the measure has become a political football.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is currently holding up debate on Fix NICS over concerns it’s too broad and could encourage government agencies to red flag someone without notice or a hearing.

Democrats are also reserving the option to block debate. They say the bill is too narrow and want Republicans to commit to debate broader reforms.

“We want a debate and we want a debate on more than Fix NICS,” Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty ImagesStudents and alumni from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School arrive for a meeting with Speaker Paul Ryan at his offices at the Capitol, Feb. 27, 2018.

Schumer and other lawmakers from both parties met with students from Stoneman Douglas at the Capitol Tuesday, but even with Parkland survivors asking Congress to make schools safer, members of Congress are in broad disagreement on how to proceed.

“They brought a really simple message. It was straight from their heart after what they experienced, they don’t want anyone to ever have to experience that again,” said Rep. Ted Deutch, the Florida Democrat who represents Parkland.

“Kids should feel safe in their schools. And we need to figure out a way to take action to help make them safe. That’s what’s important to them and that’s what’s important to the country,” Deutch said.

After meeting the students, Rep. Joe Crowley, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, called their message “inspiring.”

“They’re here for change. They’re here to make a difference,” Crowley, a New York Democrat said. “Just inspiring young people with a message to everyone. Not Democrat, not Republican. They want to see change in the gun laws in this country that would make sense – common sense to help prevent tragedies like this from happening in the future.”

Asked whether the students discussed President Donald Trump’s proposal to train and arm school staff, Deutch said the students “aren’t here to talk about bringing more guns into the schools.”

“Their teachers are not law enforcement. They’re here to talk about the steps that can be taken – all of the steps that can be taken – to help make the schools safer everywhere,” Deutch emphasized. “They understand that this isn’t going to happen all at once. They don’t believe that assault weapons, they don’t believe the weapons of war should be on our streets, in our communities. They know that’s an ongoing debate.”

Chip Somodevilla/Getty ImagesStudents and alumni from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School arrive for a meeting with Speaker Paul Ryan at his offices at the Capitol, Feb. 27, 2018.

“They’re really pushing hard on universal background checks, but they want action now,” Deutch continued. “Bump stocks should be banned. We ought to get that done. They understand that’s something that should be done. If everyone’s talking about it, if everyone’s talking about gun safety then Congress ought to be acting on these issues. That’s what they want.”

Republicans also discussed the issue behind closed doors.

Florida Republican Rep. John Rutherford, a former sheriff, said the question of arming teachers should be left to local communities to “decide because it all comes down to how much do you want to spend to protect our children” – though his preference is for law enforcement to provide security.

“Bottom line is when it gets down to protecting those kids in that school, there’s only one thing that’s going to do that, and that is a police officer there who is willing and ready to respond to protect those kids against an active shooter,” Rutherford said.