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Gun control advocates press gridlocked Congress after mass shooting in Maine

Hours after Rep. Mike Johnson, Republican of Louisiana, was sworn in as the new House speaker, a letter arrived at Johnson's new office suite in room H-232 of the Capitol. A few dozen House Democrats informed him in that letter that in the three weeks in which the House operated without a speaker, "2,030 people have died from gun violence including 15 children and 60 teenagers."

"Another 2,072 people were injured by gun violence and our country was traumatized by 33 more mass shootings," they added.

In the wake of recent mass shootings, including the rampage in Lewiston, Maine, gun control supporters in Congress are trying to nudge forward legislation and proposals that have stalled under a Republican-led House this year.

Letters seeking supporters and co-sponsors circulated on Capitol Hill through the weekend, despite emphatic opposition to new gun measures by Republicans on key House committees and Johnson, who told Fox News on Thursday, "The problem is the human heart. It's not guns, not the weapons."

The House Democrats' letter, obtained by CBS News, said, "Although we can never get back the time that was wasted by the chaos caused by the lack of leadership in the House of Representatives, we must not let that dysfunction prevent us from working together to address the gun violence crisis moving forward."

Letter from House Democrats to House Speaker Mike Johnson by Faris Tanyos on Scribd

The nascent efforts received a potential jolt Thursday from Rep. Jared Golden, the Maine Democrat who represents Lewiston. At a news conference last week, Golden announced he was changing his position on assault weapons. 

"I have opposed efforts to ban deadly weapons of war, like the assault rifle used to carry out this crime," Golden said Thursday. "The time has now come for me to take responsibility for this failure, which is why I now call on the United States Congress to ban assault rifles like the one used by the sick perpetrator of this mass killing in my hometown of Lewiston." 

Before the Maine shooting, gun control supporters in the House had already launched four separate "discharge petitions" to force a House vote on gun restriction measures. Discharge petitions are invoked by the minority party in the House when majority leadership declines to bring a bill to the floor for a vote. If the petition is signed by a majority of a House members, a floor debate is launched.   

Though Republicans have yet to support the four discharge petitions, Democrats continue to amass signatures within their own party. Sponsors landed a 203rd Democratic signature, Rep. Adam Smith, Democrat of Washington, this month for a petition to force a vote on legislation to require safer storage of firearms.

In a separate letter being shared among House members, Rep. Glenn Ivey, Democrat of Maryland, sought co-sponsors for a bill to raise the age for gun ownership.  

The letter said, "This bill would increase the age to purchase a semiautomatic centerfire rifle from 18 to 21 years old." 

"Semi-automatic rifles can discharge up to 45 rounds per minute. There is no justification for an 18-year-old to have access to a weapon of this caliber," the letter goes on to note. "Young adults are inherently unpredictable at this age, according to multiple studies."

House Democrats acknowledge the political opposition to new gun measures, but say the advocacy and championing of gun control proposals increase the prospects of new laws if Democrats regain control of the House in 2025.

Rep. Mike Thompson, Democrat of California, who chairs the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, told CBS News, "Change happens when the people of this country want it to happen. We need to keep making sure that people understand that there are things we can do."

Rep. Lucy McBath, Democrat of Georgia, whose son died in a shooting at age 17 in 2012, has also been sharing a letter seeking supporters for a federal "red flag" law, which would temporarily prevent gun purchases by people deemed by judges to be a threat or danger. McBath said her legislation, which passed the Democratic-led House in 2022, "will establish nationwide access to extreme risk protection orders through federal courts, improve the implementation of existing state extreme risk laws and encourage more states to adopt these laws by providing grant funding to states with laws that meet certain standards."

John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, told CBS News, "It's sad to say but these tragic events are sometimes fuel behind legislative action." Feinblatt said among the multiple gun control measures under consideration, the group is primarily focused on an assault weapons ban.  

"I think we can certainly plus-up the numbers" of supporters of federal legislation to address assault weapons, he said.

In 2022, in the wake of the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, Congress defied some expectations by passing its first major gun control legislation in three decades. The bipartisan Safer Communities Act enhances background checks for gun buyers under 21 years of age, provides billions for mental health services and closes the so-called "boyfriend loophole" to prevent convicted domestic abusers from purchasing a firearm for five years.    

But some of the Senate Republicans who helped negotiate the bill have not declared any support for the new proposals circulating among Democrats.    

Sen. John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, who helped champion the 2022 bill, recently said, "No, we're done," when asked about new assault weapons proposals. A spokesperson for Cornyn told CBS News, "Sen. Cornyn is not a part of any conversations on firearm-related legislation."

A spokesperson for Sen. Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina, who also supported the 2022 law, did not respond to a CBS News request for comment.

Outside advocates said they continue to conduct outreach to both parties. Aimee Thunberg, vice president for communications for Sandy Hook Promise in Newtown, Connecticut, told CBS News, "We continue to have conversations with select [Republicans] and [Democrats] to explore the paths for bipartisan work on gun safety."

But there are Democrats expressing outward pessimism about the outlook for legislation. Sen. Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, told CBS News, "You have to look at the reality of the political scene in Washington. As horrendous as this occurrence was in Maine, it's not likely to lead to really significant change."

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