WASHINGTON — Lawmakers kept up the renewed debate over the nation’s gun laws Sunday, with the Senate’s leading Republican arguing that the matter must wait until pressing fiscal issues are addressed in Congress and one Senate Democrat warning against “extreme” restrictions on guns.
“The biggest problem we have at the moment is spending and debt,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.” “That’s going to dominate the Congress between now and the end of March. None of these issues, I think, will have the kind of priority that spending and debt are going to have over the next two or three months.”
An Obama administration task force led by Vice President Joe Biden plans to offer recommendations this month on how to curb gun violence in the wake of the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. The working group is weighing measures broader and more comprehensive than simply reinstating the expired ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. President Barack Obama has said he favors reinstating such a ban.
Other measures under consideration include regulations that would require universal background checks for firearm buyers, track the movement and sale of weapons through a national database, strengthen mental health checks, and stiffen penalties for carrying guns near schools or giving them to minors.
Freshman Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., expressed concern that the Obama administration was considering such a sweeping gun-control approach.
“That’s way, way in extreme of what I think is necessary or even should be talked about. And it’s not going to pass,” Heitkamp said on “This Week.”
Heitkamp received an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, the nation’s largest gun rights group. She said that addressing mental-health issues should be an important part of curbing mass shootings.
“To me, one of the issues that I think comes — screams out of this — is the issue of mental health and the care for the mentally ill in our country, especially the dangerously mentally ill. And so we need to have a broad discussion before we start talking about gun control,” Heitkamp said.
On Capitol Hill, members on both sides of the debate introduced a handful of measures last week involving guns. Most of the measures were aimed at stepping up gun control, though a couple of the bills proposed turning back the federal regulation designating school zones as gun-free areas.
Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both New York Democrats, sent a letter to Biden on Sunday urging his task force to include a pair of measures they authored in its final recommendations. The measures would create a federal law defining gun trafficking; require states and the federal government to send records on felons, drug abusers, the seriously mentally ill and other dangerous individuals to the FBI-run system for background checks on gun buyers; and close a loophole that allows background checks to be waived in purchases of firearms at gun shows.
“As you move forward on developing recommendations with the newly formed Interagency Task Force to Reduce Gun Violence, we urge you to consider both the role that illegal guns play in gun crimes committed across America and the failures of the current federal background check system in preventing illegal gun sales,” the senators wrote.
The renewed debate has revealed a stark divide between those who favor tightening restrictions and those, such as officials at the NRA, who have said that arming qualified Americans is the best way to reduce violent outbreaks.
On Sunday, two former members of the House who returned to Congress after being elected again last November, disagreed about the need for a renewed ban on assault weapons.
“I’m a hunter, believe in Second Amendment rights. But you know what? I don’t need an assault weapon to shoot a duck,” Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “And I think they ought to be banned, and I think we need to put a ban on the amount of shells you can carry in a magazine and I think we have to strengthen our background checks.”
Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., said on the same program, “I do not support the assault-weapon ban.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who said he spent most of the past month with the families affected by the Newtown shooting, said he disagreed with McConnell’s call to put off a debate in Congress about guns until after the nation’s finances have been addressed.
“I don’t think we should wait three months to get this done. I think we should get it done now, and I frankly think that if we did that it would save lives,” Murphy said on “Face the Nation.”
Philip Rucker contributed to this report.