The death of 49 people in a shooting at Orlando's Pulse nightclub over the weekend has once again revived efforts to boost gun control reform in the US. The worst gun massacre in US history has brought to attention how Congress refused to pass a measure last year that would have prevented people on terrorism watch lists from buying weapons.
California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein had offered up the legislation in December, shortly after the San Bernardino massacre in her state that left 14 dead, but Senate Republicans, including four that ran for president in 2016, rejected the bill in a 54-45 vote along party lines that same month. This week, the measure will be put back on the table when Democrats reintroduce it as an amendment to an appropriations bill — a move one Democratic senator called "a logical, and first, and mostly likely-to-pass step."
"These attacks are preventable," Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York told reporters on a conference call Monday. "Mass shootings are the status quo because Congress has voted against sensible gun safety measures. It's that simple."
Feinstein's legislation would deny anyone who has ever appeared on a terrorism watch list, including the US government's no-fly list, the ability to purchase firearms or explosives in the United States. Currently there is no law that prohibits them from doing so, and the Government Accountability Office has found that between 2004 and 2014 more than 2,000 people appearing on those lists purchased firearms of some sort.
Omar Mateen, the 29-year-old perpetrator of the Orlando shooting, who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State during the massacre, was reportedly on a terror watchlist. The FBI had monitored him for 10 months in 2013 for possible connections to terrorists, but dropped its surveillance after finding no evidence of terrorist activity, according to FBI Director James B. Comey.
Democrats are now looking not only to act on Feinstein's bill, but also pass other common sense gun control measures in the wake of the Orlando shooting. They have announced plans to introduce legislation calling for stronger background checks; a ban on gun sales to the people who are mentally ill or those convicted of domestic abuse; and the outlawing of assault weapons like the AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle that Mateen used to gun down dozens of young men and women, many of them gay, as they partied at Pulse early Sunday morning.
Feinstein said she doesn't know "what it will take to change the mindset of this Congress" about gun control. "Without making the change, we're just asking for people to come into this country and go out and buy a gun," she said, "and that's just not right."
On Tuesday, President Obama called on Congress to enact "common sense steps" to reduce gun violence, and to "reinstate the assault-weapons ban, make it harder for terrorists to use these weapons to kill us."
"People with possible ties to terrorism, who are not allowed on a plane, should not be allowed to buy a gun," Obama said after a meeting with top national security officials at the Treasury Department. "Enough talking about being tough on terrorism. Actually, be tough on terrorism and stop making it easy as possible for terrorists to buy assault weapons."
In 2013, Feinstein also introduced an Assault Weapons Ban, without success, just a month after the December 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school massacre. Following the latest shooting in Orlando, VICE News contacted the offices of all 60 Republican and Democratic senators who voted against that bill at the time to ask whether any had since changed their positions in light of mass shootings in Orlando, San Bernardino, and elsewhere.
Of the 11 senators who responded, none indicated that they would amend their position on assault rifles, while only three Republicans — Roy Blunt of Missouri, John Boozman of Arkansas and Michael Lee of Utah — definitively said they would not change their positions. A spokeswoman for Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, who voted against the 2013 Assault Weapons Ban, declined to say whether he would shift his stance, but noted that the senator did vote in favor of Feinstein's bill to stop terrorists from buying guns last year.
Feinstein needs to win the 60 votes required in a procedural vote to pass her bill — a difficult feat since Republicans currently hold a 54-46 Senate majority. It would also have to be passed in the Republican-controlled House. Republican Congress members up for reelection in November may be swayed by surveys showing that the majority of Americans, fatigued by near-daily mass shootings, now support some form of gun control.
A 10-year federal assault weapons ban was previously enacted under Bill Clinton's administration in 1994. George W. Bush did not push Congress to renew the ban when it expired in 2004, despite its apparent effectiveness: Gun deaths dropped from 38,500 in 1994 to 29,500 in 2001, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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VICE News's Olivia Becker and Tess Owen contributed reporting to this article.