Politics & Government

Will McConnell act on guns? Campaign to pressure Senate leader hits airwaves

Amid protests outside his house and taunts from late night comedians, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is about to become a focus of a six-figure TV ad campaign in Kentucky and Colorado by a leading gun control advocacy group that wants to pressure him to schedule a speedy Senate vote to expand background checks.

Giffords, the gun control organization founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who was wounded in a 2011 shooting that left six people dead, will spend nearly $750,000 on the two ads, which begin airing this weekend.

The ads criticize McConnell and Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, one of the most vulnerable Senate Republicans up for re-election in 2020, for blocking a background check bill passed in February by the Democratic-controlled House.

“You’ve got Senate Majority Leader McConnell and one of his compliant allies who, despite this daily toll of gun violence, have refused to act,” said Peter Ambler, Giffords executive director. “We’re in a situation where the nation is grieving from two horrible mass shootings that happened within 24 hours and Americans are wondering why despite this gun violence crisis .. McConnell, Gardner and the others haven’t moved.”

The Kentucky ad features a voice-over of a young girl writing to McConnell, asking him to “end your vacation early” and return to Washington.

“Since you’re in charge of the Senate, can’t you do something to keep these shootings from happening all the time?” the girl asks in the 30-second spot that urges viewers to call McConnell to ask for a vote.

The ads come as gun control advocacy groups and Democrats seek to push McConnell, who, like many Republicans, has urged caution on gun control legislation in the wake of weekend mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas that killed at least 31 people.

McConnell has rejected calls to return to Washington immediately to take up House legislation to expand background checks for most gun purchases. He told a Louisville radio station on Thursday that it would be a mistake because “we’d just have people scoring political points and nothing would happen.”

But he told radio station WHAS 840 Thursday that he had spoken with President Donald Trump and that they are both “anxious to get an outcome” and pass some version of gun control legislation after Congress returns to Washington in September.

“When we get back, hopefully, we’ll be able to come together and actually pass something,” McConnell said in the radio interview. “I want to make a law, not just see this kind of political sparring going on endlessly which never produces a result.”

Robert Steurer, a spokesman for McConnell, declined Friday to elaborate beyond McConnell’s remarks on Thursday.

Trump told reporters Friday that the country needs “intelligent background checks” and that McConnell was “totally onboard.” Steurer, however, noted that McConnell had not endorsed any legislation, but spoke broadly about what could be done.

Trump told reporters that the NRA would either “be there” with him on background checks, or be “a little more neutral.”

The NRA, however, made it clear it opposes “any legislation that unfairly infringes upon the rights of law-abiding citizens.” In a statement, NRA chief executive officer Wayne LaPierre decried many gun safety proposals as “nothing more than ‘soundbite solutions’ “ that he said would not have prevented the recent shootings and would “make millions of law abiding Americans less safe and less able to defend themselves and their loved ones.”

Democrats are worried that momentum will slow in three weeks and lawmakers’ attention will turn elsewhere. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said they talked to Trump on Thursday after McConnell and told the president that “the best way forward” to address gun violence is for the Senate to pass the House bill.

Schumer discounted McConnell’s remarks, saying that the Majority Leader has only said that there will be talks: “To get anything meaningful done to address gun violence, we need his commitment to hold a Senate vote on the House-passed background checks legislation,” Schumer tweeted Friday.

Giffords, which endorsed Amy McGrath, one of McConnell’s 2020 Democratic challengers, last July when the former Marine fighter pilot ran against Rep. Andy Barr, R-Kentucky, accused McConnell of offering “nothing but empty condolences in the wake of horrific shootings.” It has not yet made an endorsement in the 2020 Kentucky Senate race.

It noted the NRA had given McConnell its highest possible rating, “A+,” for his 2014 reelection and that McConnell has received more than $1.2 million in campaign contributions from the gun rights group.

The ad will play in deeply Republican Kentucky, but Giffords’ Ambler contended the “politics of guns is changing” with more Americans exposed to episodes of mass shootings.

“This isn’t only an issue you can talk about in blue states, it’s an issue that is becoming less and less partisan,” he said. “To think McConnell is immune from criticism on it misses the broader sweep of history here.”

The Colorado ad features a teacher noting that “instead of making lesson plans, I’m making active shooter plans.” It calls on Gardner to support the House legislation.

The House in February passed two gun control measures, including one to expand background checks by requiring them for nearly all private sales, including gun shows and online transactions. The bill was introduced on January 8, the anniversary of the Tucson shooting that left Giffords injured. She joined Pelosi and the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-California, to unveil the legislation.

Eight Republicans in the House joined nearly every Democrat to vote for the bill, but it has not moved in the Senate where McConnell is wary of moving legislation unless he has the support of the majority of Republicans and an assurance that Trump will sign the bill.

McConnell said in the radio interview that he and Trump had talked about various proposals that will be “front and center” in Senate discussions, including so-called red flag warning legislation that would keep guns from people deemed a threat by their friends and family members, as well as expanding background checks.

One Democratic and two Republican Kentucky lawmakers announced Thursday that they plan to present legislation to the 2020 Kentucky General Assembly that would create a red flag law, also known as extreme risk protection orders.

“It’s public safety,” said Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, a farmer who described himself as an avid hunter and defender of gun rights.