The Senate could act as early as this week on a bill that would improve the nation’s background check system used for scrutinizing most firearms purchases, Republicans said Monday.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, moved Monday afternoon to bring up for an immediate vote the Fix NICS bill, a bipartisan measure that would use both penalties and rewards to get more states and federal agencies to send information to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
The Senate’s attempt at swift action on gun control legislation comes less than two weeks after a teenager opened fire in a Florida high school, killing 17 people. After that attack, the FBI and local law enforcement admitted they didn't act on warning signs that might have prevented the shooter from buying a gun.
The bill, sponsored by Cornyn and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., would help ensure gun shop owners have a more complete and accurate list of people who should not be allowed to purchase firearms. Many states do not supply the information to the NICS system, and some federal agencies have also fallen short.
But Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, blocked Cornyn’s move for an immediate vote on the bill over due process concerns, which slowed down a vote.
Democrats also have objections to a fast vote on the measure, because they want to expand the legislation to further scrutinize who can buy guns.
Cornyn told the Washington Examiner that the legislation, which has the National Rifle Association's and President Trump's blessing, could still come up for a vote this week if lawmakers drop their objections.
“I’m talking to Sen. Murphy and we are discussing a way,” Cornyn said. “We both agree this is one piece of legislation that could actually move.”
Cornyn said an agreement could include allowing votes on amendments, which would give lawmakers an opportunity to change the bill while it is on the floor. But the two parties would have to agree on the list of amendments.
“I think it is within the realm of possibility,” Cornyn said.
However, Murphy told reporters that even though he wrote the bill with Cornyn, the shooting in Florida has changed things. The Fix NICS bill, Murphy said, “is not sufficient to meet the moment” and should not be voted on as is.
Murphy said the bill leaves out an expansion of background checks and a ban on assault-style weapons, which he believes the public is demanding. He wants full-floor consideration and a chance to amend the bill.
“Let’s have the debate,” Murphy said.
Lee, meanwhile, is seeking changes to the bill that would address longstanding due process problems that plague the NICS system. His fixes would, among other things, allow people to have a chance to challenge a decision to flag them in the NICS system before they are actually placed on the list.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is also seeking changes that would address NICS due process issues.
The path for the bill is still uncertain, as many other Democrats also have their own ideas on what to add to the bill. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Monday the bill should include language expanding background checks to gun shows and Internet purchases.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., like Murphy, wants the legislation to go further than background check expansion and include a ban on assault-style weapons. The shooter in Florida used an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle.
“If you are going to get at the problem, you have to get comprehensive background checks and you have to get the assault rifles off the streets,” Nelson said.
Cornyn and Murphy introduced the Fix NICS bill on Nov. 16 but it had stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.
"Our office is in discussions about the best path forward for this issue, but we likely won’t have any update until after senators return to Washington," Judiciary Committee spokesman Taylor Foy told the Washington Examiner last week, when Congress was out for the President's Day recess.
"Grassley is also working with several other colleagues on legislation to improve school safety, and we will provide further updates on that effort as it develops," he said.
Foy added that Grassley last week began probing the FBI's response to warnings it received about the Florida school shooter.
"We expect to receive a briefing from the FBI this week," Foy said.
The House passed a bill in December that mirrors the Fix NICS bill, but it includes a provision to expand reciprocity laws to all 50 states for concealed-carry permit holders, which is a nonstarter with Senate Democrats.
It's not clear whether Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., would bring up the Cornyn-Murphy bill if it passes the Senate and doesn't include reciprocity.
A significant faction of House conservatives oppose Cornyn-Murphy without reciprocity. The NRA's support and Trump's urging, however, may put pressure on the House to act.
A GOP aide told the Washington Examiner that Ryan, a staunch gun-rights advocate and a hunter, has not ruled out bringing up a Senate-passed bill that leaves out reciprocity.