WASHINGTON — Democrats are angling to put gun control at the center of the debate when lawmakers return to Capitol Hill next week, but so far, North Carolina’s senators have stayed relatively quiet on the issue.
After a summer marked by multiple mass shootings across the United States, gun control is gaining more traction in Congress, even among some traditionally reluctant Republicans.
The House Judiciary Committee is slated to debate three gun control proposals next week, and House Democratic leadership has called for immediate action on the issue. Meanwhile, Walmart announced this week it would no longer sell ammunition for assault weapons.
After the back-to-back mass shootings last month in Texas and Ohio, North Carolina Republican Senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr each responded with a tweet decrying the shootings. But they did not call for tighter gun control laws and have not shown any indication they are changing their stance on gun issues.
Both lawmakers have voted against new background check proposals in the past and received significant contributions from the gun lobby. Neither office responded to emails asking for comment this week.
Tillis and Burr have each received financial backing from gun rights groups. Burr has collected $121,650 in campaign contributions from gun rights groups over his congressional career, according to an analysis from the Center for Responsive Politics. Tillis has received $46,850, according to the same analysis.
The two senators were also among the biggest beneficiaries of National Rifle Association spending on campaign advertisements, according to an ABC news analysis of Federal Election Commission records.
There are federal restrictions on how much a campaign can accept directly from any individual. But groups can spend unlimited amounts on their own advertisements to support or oppose candidates, as long as the group does not coordinate directly with the candidates or their campaigns.
The NRA invested $1.4 million on advertisements supporting Burr over the years and spent $5.6 million on attack ads against Deborah Ross, his Democratic challenger in 2016. The NRA also invested more than $4.4 million in the 2014 North Carolina Senate campaign, according to the ABC analysis, to try to regain the seat for a Republican. In that election, Tillis challenged and won against Democratic incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan.
‘Playing hot potato’
The Republican-led Senate has been hesitant to take on a gun-control debate. House lawmakers already cleared a bill that would strengthen background checks, but the Senate has not acted on the measure. The House is expected to take up three more bills this month, a “red flag” bill to allow for easier removal of firearms from someone’s home, a ban on large magazines and a hate-crime bill.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a radio interview this week that he would be willing to bring up some sort of gun legislation, if it has the support of President Donald Trump and broad support from lawmakers. The politics are difficult for McConnell and other Republicans, who risk losing support of gun-rights advocates and voters before the 2020 election.
“If the president is in favor of a number of things that he has discussed openly and publicly, and I know that if we pass it, it’ll become law, I’ll put it on the floor,” McConnell told conservative talk show radio host Hugh Hewitt in an interview this week.
Trump has given mixed messages on gun control. In the wake of another mass shooting last weekend, he said he is looking at legislative options but he has not committed to any one approach.
“This really hasn’t changed anything, we’re doing a package,” Trump told reporters Sunday. “We’re looking at a lot of different things, a lot of different bills, ideas, concepts. For the most part, as strong as you make your background checks, they would not have stopped any of it. So it’s a big problem. It’s a mental problem. It’s a big problem.”
Gun-control advocacy groups say the vague commitments from Republicans give them little hope for Senate action.
“Leader McConnell and the White House are kind of playing hot potato with this issue and throwing it back to one another, because no one is willing to take leadership,” said Katherine Phillips, federal affairs manager at Giffords, a gun control group founded by shooting survivor and former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
One of the last major gun control votes in the Senate was a 2013 vote on background checks that fell short of the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a filibuster. The Senate voted 54-46 on the compromise plan. It would have expanded background checks on firearms sales and banned some assault weapons. Burr was one of the votes against the measure. Tillis was not yet in the Senate.
Burr and Tillis also both voted against an amendment that sought to close background check loopholes when the issue came up again in 2015. That amendment failed in a 48-50 vote.
Tillis is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, one of the panels with jurisdiction over firearms. He is an original co-sponsor of a bill that would allow people with concealed weapon permits to take their weapons across state lines to other states that allow concealed firearms. The proposal, which is a big priority for the NRA, has 37 cosponsors but has seen no action in the Senate. U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson (R-8th) introduced similar legislation, which cleared the House when there was a Republican majority in 2017.
Tillis also co-sponsored legislation that would establish a task force of experts to create threat assessments and give recommendations for a national strategy on targeted violence. When it was introduced in January, Tillis said it would help create steps to try to prevent “mass casualty events.”
Gun control advocates say they do not consider such proposals serious attempts to address gun violence.
‘Prayers are with the victims’
Neither North Carolina senator has devoted much airtime on their social media accounts to gun control this year. Each wrote one tweet of concern after the August mass shootings, but they haven’t posted further comments on those accounts.
“The shootings in El Paso and Dayton are acts of pure evil,” Burr said then on Twitter. “We mourn the lives tragically lost, and my prayers are with the victims, their families, and the first responders who rushed to help.”
Tillis said on Twitter that he and his wife, Susan, were “heartbroken by the horrific tragedies in El Paso and Dayton, acts of hate and domestic terrorism targeting our fellow Americans.”
He added, “Grateful to the first responders who helped save innocent lives.”
After a shooting last April at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, just 15 minutes away from Tillis’s home, his Twitter response was limited to a single tweet and a brief statement.
Tillis later spoke of the incident in a brief statement on the Senate floor, in which he said he wanted to “celebrate the lives of the two victims” and “let them know and their family know we’re praying for them.” He did not mention gun control policy.
Burr wrote on Twitter at the time, “Awful news out of @UNCCharlotte. As law enforcement officials and first responders work to secure the area, I urge everyone to follow their instructions and stay safe.”
Allison Winter is a reporter for the Washington, DC bureau of The Newsroom network of which NC Policy Watch is a member.