Blame Mitch McConnell, Not Trump, for Not Doing Anything About Guns

The longtime Senate Republican leader has obstructed gun control legislation for years.
Mitch McConnell stands at a podium at the 2016 Republican National Convention.
Mitch McConnell in 2016. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty

By now, everyone knows what follows after a horrific mass shooting. First a recitation of the bare facts, followed by images of police tape and crime scenes. Soon after come calls for change—the demands that something should be done. Then debate in all the usual places about policies and statistics, dull talking points in the face of raw-throated grief and rage.

Then comes nothing, inaction, as it becomes clear the people in charge of the country have looked upon all of this and decided nothing really needs to change, that this is just what happens. Presiding over this last part for the past several years has been Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.


It was McConnell who after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting—a time when national legislation to limit access to deadly weapons seemed possible—told his constituents, "President Obama and his team are doing everything in their power to restrict your Constitutional right to keep and bear arms." It was McConnell who, months later, led the Republicans in blocking a universal background check measure, the most minor kind of gun legislation possible. (That amendment got 54 Senate votes, a majority, just not enough to clear the absurd 60-vote threshold required for all legislation that isn't a McConnell-approved tax cut for the rich.) Since then, McConnell has refused to consider moderate gun control measures, including expanded background checks, that passed out of the Democrat-controlled House earlier this year. Most recently, it was McConnell's campaign Twitter account that celebrated the metaphorical deaths of his opponents with a photo of tombstones in the midst of last weekend's bloodshed.

McConnell is not solely responsible for blocking gun control legislation. In 2013, for instance, it's unlikely that the bill he defeated in the Senate would have passed the Republican-controlled House. But he is the one choosing not to bring a bill to expand background checks to the Senate floor, even though the vast majority of Americans—including a majority of gun owners—say they support the idea.


The Republican Party is actually somewhat divided on guns. Moderate GOP legislators have sponsored gun control legislation, and polls have shown an upswing in support for gun control among Republican voters. Even Donald Trump seems ambivalent on the issue—he's at times called for tougher gun laws, but never followed through in any meaningful way. On Monday, he seemed to be having a tough-on-guns moment, voicing support for "red flag" laws that allow a court to order that someone's guns be taken away if they are judged to be an obvious danger to themselves or others. Seventeen states have such a law on the books, and Republican-controlled Florida enacted its version after the Parkland shooting in 2018.

Congress seems interested in the issue, to a degree. Senators Lindsey Graham, a Republican, and Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, are at work on a bipartisan bill that would encourage states to adopt red flag laws. McConnell hasn't come out in support, but said in a statement that he wants his senators "to engage in bipartisan discussions of potential solutions to help protect our communities without infringing on Americans’ constitutional rights."

The question is, why doesn't McConnell simply signal his support of the Graham-Blumenthal plan? Why does he refuse to allow a vote on background checks—a vote that probably won't get the required 60 votes in any case?

It's hard to believe McConnell is simply personally opposed to gun control, since his career has been defined by political calculation rather than moral or ideological considerations. More likely, he sees the issue as a potential wedge that could divide his party, with some moderates likely to vote for background checks and risk the wrath of pro-gun activists. The NRA is in disarray, but guns are still an enormously powerful symbol on the right.

Or maybe McConnell's calculus is simpler: After years of outrage about mass shootings, and years of conspicuous inaction thanks to his leadership, he's still in control of the Senate. Everything has worked out for him. Why would he want change?

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