In advance of debate on tax reform and the federal budget, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) is asking fellow Democrats to stay aloof from debate over gun control despite efforts by gun control advocates that the party needs to take action in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre. This comes despite urging from gun control groups for Democrats to take a stand in favor of controls on gun purchases, such as expanded background checks and bans on silencers. 

There were some gun control sympathizers who actually seemed pleased that there were Trump supporters who died in Las Vegas. For example, Hayley Geftman-Gold, who worked in the legal department of CBS, tweeted in the aftermath of the Las Vegas shootings, "If they wouldn't do anything when children were murdered, I have no hope that the Repugs will ever do the right thing. I'm actually not even sympathetic because country music fans often are Republican gun toters." In response, Erin Fagan Silber wrote, "Yeah, I was thinking that since this directly hits the country-music population, maybe the will actually do something now. But after Sandy Hook, Republicans reacted by wanting to arm teachers."

Hillary Clinton tweeted her support for banning silencers. But otherwise, response by Democrats to the Las Vegas massacre was relatively muted in comparison to the Orlando shooting that claimed 50 lives and 58 wounded.

Last year, when a Muslim terrorist opened fire on a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Democrats responded by occupying the floor of the House of Representatives in defiance of Republicans’ stance on expanded gun laws. There was outrage among Democrats over the deaths of the patrons of the nightclub, many of whom were gay, prompting gun control advocates to double-down on calls for ban so-called assault rifles. However, this time around, Democrats appear to be more tame, seeking to tamp down talk of another sit-in while also demanding that the GOP drop a gun silencer bill that was facilitate the purchase of the devices. This was despite the shooting deaths of 58 and the wounding of hundreds of country music fans in Las Vegas.

Gentler, tamer Democrats

Schumer set his sights lower than the usual calls for banning assault weapons. “I am calling on the president to come out against the absurd law about silencers. Threaten to veto it if he must and put an end to that bill,” said Schumer about GOP legislation that would ease the process for purchasing silencers. While Democrats have called for a vote on a bipartisan bill to expand background checks for gun buyers, and requested the creation of a select committee on gun violence, they recognize that calling for gun control will not be to their advantage. “It doesn’t seem to make a great difference at the ballot box, and that’s frustrating,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said earlier this month.

Also, even while House Democrats appeared on the Capitol steps on October 4 in honor of the Las Vegas victims and to criticize Republicans, the response was notably less aggressive than last year’s sit-in. By way of contrast, the occupation of the House floor in 2016 was a spectacle that was transmitted across the globe. “I think at this point, that’s probably not the best course of action for Democrats to take,” said Rep. Linda Sánchez of California, vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, during the first week of October. She noted that the idea of a sit-in did not enter into discussions at the Democratic Caucus meeting on October 3.

It's the economy, stupid

Another reason that Democrats may be skirting gun control issues is the economy. For example, when Democrats announced their 2018 agenda in July, their “Better Deal” left out social issues such as guns. Sanchez said that while some Democrats focus on guns, the party wants to convey that Democrats always “stand with working families.” 

This approach does not sit well with some Democrats and constituent groups that traditionally support them. For example, in the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in modern history this month, Ladd Everitt of 1Pulse4America --  a gun control group that was created after the Orlando massacre -- said recently that Democrats need to “find courage” and speak about the issue. Everitt said that members of the movement are angry over Democrats’ response.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), who was elected in 2016, tweeted this week, “The deadliest mass shooting in our country’s history was 16 days ago.” She wrote, “Conversations about gun violence have faded. We can’t accept that.”

Schumer’s strategy may be to save Senate seats in states Trump won last year, including Montana, North Dakota, and West Virginia. These last three are home to people who appreciate their Second Amendment rights. Schumer also wants to win back the majority in the Senate if Republicans falter. 

Debate on the budget began on Thursday, and Schumer has urged his Democratic colleagues to focus their amendments on economics and health care, rather than guns. “I would like and I am urging my caucus to limit it to four issues,” Schumer told reporters on Wednesday. Schumer wants Democrats to criticize Republicans for their proposal to cut taxes for the highest earners. He also wants them to block tax increases on middle-income Americans, cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, while insisting that tax reform will not increase the federal deficit. “Those are the four issues we’d like to focus on instead of doing a long vote-a-rama on every other issue,” Schumer said.

Some Democrats have tried projecting their comfort with guns. For example, Democrat Jason Kander,  who challenged Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), touted his prowess with firearms by assembling an assault rifle blindfolded. He supported expanded background check and, as a National Guard veteran, argued that he was not opposed to the Second Amendment. Nevertheless, he lost the race to Blunt, who voted against expanded background checks for gun buys in 2016. This would not be lost on Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who is running for reelection in 2018.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-DT), a firebrand for gun control, said this week that while he is drafting gun-related amendments, he has not yet decided to ask for votes on them soon. Murphy said that he is not trying to shield fellow Democrats facing tough races against Republicans next year. “This budget is so toxic on its own terms,” Murphy said, “I think there’s a question about whether you want to take the focus away from this terrible [budget] vote they’re about to cast.”

Likewise, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) is in favor of restricting high-capacity magazines, but claims he wants to reach across the aisle for co-sponsors before launching legislation to the floor. He said that Democrats will be focused in the coming budget debate on Medicare, Medicaid, and taxes on the poor.  Saying that he is “not interested in messaging” on gun control, he said that Democrats need Republican support in order to find solutions to gun violence.

Musical chairs in the Senate

There are some Democrats who may be counting on their milder stance on gun control. One of them, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana has gotten approval from the National Rifle Association on annual voting scorecards. However, Gun Owners of America gave him a failing score. He recently said that Democrats need to hold off on increasing controls of silencers until the Las Vegas shooting has been fully probed. The Hill has deemed him one of the Democrats in the Senate who could lose next year. Another vulnerable Democrat is Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Legislation on background checks he co-sponsored with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) failed in 2013. He is now expecting support from the White House for what he called “common sense.” He said this month, “It’s really going to take President Trump, who looks at something from a law-abiding gun owner’s standpoint, that makes common sense and gun sense, and puts his stamp of approval on it.”

Here are 10 vulnerable Senate seats:

Bill Nelson  (D-FL)

Joe Donnelly (D-IN)

Claire McCaskill (D-MO)

Jon Tester (D-MT)

Dean Heller (R-NV)

Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND)

Sherrod Brown (D-OH)

Bob Casey (D-PA) 

Joe Manchin (D-WV)

Tammy Baldwin (D-WI)



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Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and the editor of Spero News.

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