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Congress remains unlikely to change U.S. gun laws after Orlando shooting

People protest gun violence and call for sensible gun laws outside the White House on June 13.
(Getty Images)

Even the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history is not likely to persuade Congress to change the nation’s gun laws.

Democrats in the Senate said Monday that they would renew efforts to ban gun sales to terrorism suspects in the aftermath of the Orlando attack.

But the bill is likely to find the same fate it did six months ago, after the San Bernardino terrorist attack, when the Republican majority opposed it on a largely party line vote.

More ambitious proposals, including one to reinstate an assault weapons ban, were not immediately on the table.

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“The only way we’re going to see the kind of change to our gun safety laws that we would like to see, that the vast majority of the country would like to see … will be when individual Americans make clear to their representatives in Congress that this is a top priority,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday.

He noted that if lawmakers weren’t moved to tighten gun laws after the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, they probably won’t change their minds now.

“There are a lot of people who suspected that seeing 20 first-graders get massacred in their classroom, that that might have sufficient pull on the nation’s conscience and on the conscience of individual members in the United States Congress to get them to change some of these laws,” Earnest said. “And it didn’t.”

Votes could come as soon as this week on the measure from California Sen. Dianne Feinstein to ban terrorism suspects from being able to purchase firearms.

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Omar Mateen, the gunman in the weekend shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., was no longer on the terrorist watch list after federal investigations of his activity in 2013 and 2014.

But Democrats said the legislation would have given authorities the ability to block firearms sales because he had been under suspicion. Authorities said Mateen had recently purchased the handgun and assault rifle used in the rampage.

“There’s no excuse for allowing suspected terrorists to buy guns,” said Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), as the Senate opened Monday, recounting the 49 clubgoers slain over the weekend, a number that could rise as many of those injured remained hospitalized.

“Is that enough to get our attention? It’s time for Congress to do something,” Reid said.

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Despite public outcry over mass shootings, election-year politics are driving both parties away from seriously tackling any legislative solutions.

Most Americans support stricter gun laws, and believe they would help prevent gun violence, according to polling from earlier this year. But those views are not shared across party lines.

Most Republicans oppose tougher gun laws, and GOP leaders are loath to risk upsetting the conservative base – especially as the party is already deeply split over presumed presidential nominee Donald Trump.

Gun advocates and the National Rifle Assn., which endorsed Trump, oppose measures to limit access to firearms.

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Democrats, meanwhile, are trying to strike a balance between their progressive base, which is ready to fight for tougher gun laws, and the more moderate wing, which they hope will attract some Republican voters this year amid the discomfort with Trump.

The decision by Democrats to put forward the terrorism suspect bill appears to offer the kind of middle-ground approach that does not overreach, but could still put political pressure on Republican lawmakers. Only one Democratic senator opposed it last year.

The legislation, first proposed by the George W. Bush administration in 2007, would add terrorism suspects as a new category of individuals who can be denied firearm purchases during federal background checks.

It would allow law enforcement to block sales or transfers to individuals known or suspected “to be or have been engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism, or providing material support or resources for terrorism.” The bill also allows an appeals process for those who believe they were wrongly added to the list.

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“We have to make it harder for people to have those weapons of war,” presumed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton said Monday in a speech backing the bill.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) did not address the gun legislation as he called for a moment of silence Monday in the chamber to honor the victims in Orlando.

Several members of Congress, however, have said they will no longer stand for such symbolic acts as Washington refuses to fully debate the issue.

Congress failed to pass a package of gun measures after the Sandy Hook school shooting, and Connecticut’s two senators, Christopher S. Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, both Democrats, have called Congress “complicit” in such shooting deaths because of its inaction.

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Earlier this year, President Obama took administrative steps to require some increased background checks and other changes in the face of congressional gridlock.

Asked whether Obama is resigned to the idea that he’s powerless to stop more mass shootings, Earnest said he is not.

The president, he said, is “quite intensely frustrated.”

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

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Twitter: @LisaMascaro

christi.parsons@latimes.com

Twitter: @cparsons

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