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Week in politics: Revived debate on guns; Universal background checks; Primary races


This week's mass shooting in Texas has revived debate in Congress again over federal gun restrictions. Two measures tightening background checks passed the House of Representatives last year and were placed on the Senate calendar this week. NPR's Domenico Montanaro joins us.

Domenico, thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: And why aren't these measures given much of a chance to pass?

MONTANARO: Well, there's pretty staunch opposition from Republican lawmakers. There are at least two bills that would expand background checks that Congress is considering. They'd restrict private sales, lengthen the time from when a background check was conducted to also when someone could get a gun and be - there would have to be various reports from government agencies to determine the effectiveness of these kinds of programs. But any of these, even what many consider small steps, are seen as a Pandora's box for a lot of Republicans, for conservatives and gun owners who fear that under a Democratic president, they'd come for their guns and go further. And that's what they hear from the NRA and conservative media. And it's a pretty steady drumbeat against expanding any kind of regulations.

SIMON: Of course, national polls show strong support for background checks, perhaps as many as 90% of Americans. Why don't Republicans and one or two Democrats see these bills as delivering what 90% of the American people want and what their constituents want?

MONTANARO: Well, there may be some effort in that way, but anything that's already on the table would likely be lightened in some ways to get those votes. Even if there were a couple of Republicans, it still wouldn't pass because Republican leadership would likely filibuster any legislation and make 60 votes the threshold instead of 50, plus one. You know, there's a couple of things going on here. I mean, one, the way districts have been drawn, the way people have chosen to live closer to others who agree with them politically has meant that districts have become more partisan. We live in an era when districts are brighter blue and redder reds than ever before. So it's not a national poll they're looking at but just how locked in their communities have become on one way or the other on this issue.

You know, and that's meant there just isn't a lot of political incentive for Republicans to advocate for stricter gun laws. I mean, remember, there are a lot of guns and gun owners in this country - 4 in 10 households have guns in them, according to surveys. And the Supreme Court has only made it more permissible for people to have guns. It determined in 2008, for example, that there is a constitutional right to have a handgun in your home. In recent years, we've seen since the Parkland, Fla., shooting, Democrats have increased in their desire for stricter gun laws, but Republicans and independents have declined in their support for them. Beyond background checks, we see huge political divides. When you ask, for example, as the Pew Research Center has in recent years, whether it was if it was harder to buy guns, would there be fewer mass shootings? - three-quarters of Democrats say yes, it would, but two-thirds of Republicans say it would make no difference and another 15% of Republicans even say it would mean more mass shootings.

SIMON: We just heard some of former President Trump's remarks at the National Rifle Association meeting in Houston. Instead of gun control, he's called for what he called hardening every school in America - fences and armed guard. What effect does that have on the debate?

MONTANARO: Well, you know, Trump's certainly the most important and most popular person on the right. He's teasing running for president. He's the frontrunner for that nomination if he wants it again. So he still holds the biggest megaphone among Republicans. And what he's saying echoes what the NRA said during his administration when mass shootings happened when he was president. And it's the same story, quote-unquote, "hardening schools," putting up fences, etc. But Texas, for example, has already put money toward hardening schools to a limited effect as studies have found. The shooter in this case got in a back door that was propped open. You know, building fortresses would cost an incredible amount of money for schools. Experts say it would have a psychological toll on kids. And by the way, many people, including President Biden, think the best way to prevent these kinds of events from happening would be to ban weapons that can get a lot of shots off in a short amount of time, the kind of weapon the Uvalde shooter used. That often gets majority support in polls but not necessarily from Republicans. Republicans think it's about values or mental illness, but there was a ban on, in this country for 10 years. When that ban was lifted, mass shootings increased dramatically.

SIMON: Domenico Montanaro, thanks so much.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.