Orlando Massacre Touches Off Renewed Gun Control Debate

PHOTO: Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Sen. Charles Schumer, during the Senate Judiciary Committee markup of the "Assault Weapons Ban of 2013", on March 7, 2013.Douglas Graham/AP Images
Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Sen. Charles Schumer, during the Senate Judiciary Committee markup of the "Assault Weapons Ban of 2013", on March 7, 2013.

Speaking to reporters from the Oval Office Monday in the wake of the Orlando massacre, President Obama expressed frustration over what he said was the ease with which known or suspected terrorists are able to buy guns legally in the United States.

“If we have self-radicalized individuals in this country, then they are going to be very difficult oftentimes to find ahead of time, and how easy it is for them to obtain weapons is in some cases going to make a difference as to whether they're able to carry out attacks like this or not,” he said.

Now leading Democrats are seeking to revive a measure that they say could have at least potentially stopped Orlando shooter Omar Mateen from buying firearms. The bill, drafted by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, would have blocked people who are “known or appropriately suspected” to be engaged in terrorism from being able to buy guns.

The bill to close the so-called “terror gap” failed in the Senate, 45-54 during a vote last December. It would have essentially added a tenth criterion to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ list of prohibited gun purchasers, which currently includes convicts, fugitives from justice, people convicted of domestic violence and illegal aliens.

The measure would potentially give the federal government the authority to block someone like Mateen, who the FBI had questioned on suspicion of terrorist activity, even though he was not on a terrorist watch list or a no-fly list.

The FBI closed an investigation into Mateen in 2013 and moved on after questioning him again in 2014. He purchased the two guns used in the massacre -- an AR-style rifle and Glock 17 handgun -- legally just days before the shooting.

“If the FBI did not have to close those cases, could make a notation, then when that fella went in, last week, to purchase an AR-15 and an automatic handgun, he would have come up on their radar scope,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) said on a conference call with reporters Monday.

But the Feinstein camp cautioned that it was unclear if Mateen would have met the standard proposed by the legislation at the time he bought the weapons.

Sen. Bob Casey also introduced a new bill Monday that would prohibit the purchase of guns by anyone who committed or is “reasonably suspected to be guilty of” a misdemeanor hate crime.

While Democrats said the Feinstein bill would have been the most effective in preventing a lone wolf like Mateen from purchasing guns and will thus remain their legislative priority, they also listed several other failed measures that they want to try to pass again.

Those include an assault weapons ban, expanded background checks to include gun shows and all Internet sales, and the criminalization of straw purchasing and gun trafficking.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn also introduced in 2015 a counterproposal to Feinstein’s bill which would have allowed the attorney general to delay a suspected terrorist trying to get a gun for 72 hours, and require court approval to block the sale. That amendment, which was voted on at the same time as Feinstein’s, also failed, 55-44.

President Obama himself has tried repeatedly to usher gun safety legislation through Congress, most notably when, after the Sandy Hook massacre of 2012, the White House worked on a sweeping, 23-part plan, most of which required Congressional approval.

The most notable part of that plan was a mandate for background checks on most gun sales. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) crafted such a bill, but it failed 54 to 46 in April 2013.

Citing frustration with his legislative defeats, the president then shifted his focus to actions he could accomplish without Congress’ approval.

In January of this year he unveiled a new strategy that did not issue any new regulations or executive orders, but rather “make it clear” that gun sellers must get licenses and conduct background checks, whether in stores, online or at gun shows.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing it over the Internet or at a gun show. It’s not where you do it, but what you do,” Obama said during a speech unveiling the proposals.

The White House also proposed increased funding for access to mental health care and for an additional 200 new ATF agents and investigators to help enforce gun laws on the books. The Senate is currently working on a bipartisan mental health bill, but it’s not clear if and when it will get a vote.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who controls which measures get Senate votes, said he did not have any updates on gun safety amendments or if/when they might come to the floor.