WASHINGTON – Most congressional Republicans – including Rep. Chris Collins of Clarence – are sticking to their views on guns two weeks after a 19-year-old was charged with using an assault rifle to kill 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla.
But ever so subtly, while maintaining his support for the Second Amendment, Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, is staking out new ground in favor of stronger background checks for gun buyers.
Meantime, while Democrats such as Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand and Rep. Brian Higgins argue for reinstatement of a federal ban on assault weapons, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer is avoiding that subject in his public comments, instead focusing, like Reed, on the background check issue.
Such is the state of play among Western New York lawmakers amid an unprecedented effort by teens who survived the Florida shooting to bolster the nation's gun laws.
Collins, a strong gun rights proponent who has proposed federal legislation that would essentially undo New York's SAFE Act, said he rejects any quick gun control effort in favor of looking at why people such as Nikolas Cruz, the Florida shooting suspect, commit such crimes.
“While there will always be those who try to benefit politically from such a terrible tragedy by proposing simplistic solutions, I believe that our nation needs to have a dialogue about what drives deranged individuals to carry out these types of heinous acts," Collins said.
Collins last week rejected Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz's suggestion that the two men meet in a town hall to discuss gun control. Asked why, Collins' political adviser, Christopher M. Grant, said: "It's comical that Mark Poloncarz – who doesn't actually have the courage of his convictions to run for federal office – now wants to be a surrogate attack dog and exploit the Parkland tragedy for his own political gain."
Collins does, however, favor some modest gun regulations. He favors bipartisan legislation that would bolster the National Instant Criminal Background Check System by improving record-keeping and penalize agencies that don't forward data to the database. And he favors a ban on "bump stocks," which allow semiautomatic weapons to shoot at a far faster rate.
Reed said Tuesday that he favors those measures, but he also went further. Asked if he would be willing to consider expanding the background check system to cover guns sold at gun shows and on the internet, Reed said: "Anything that would improve check system, I'm open to. So let's stay tuned to see where we can go with that."
The House Problem Solvers Caucus, a middle-of-the-road group that Reed co-chairs, met Tuesday to discuss devising a bipartisan approach that combines background check reforms with provisions regarding mental health. Reed said two Michigan representatives, one Republican and one Democrat, will lead a working group to draw up such a proposal.
For years, Reed has stressed mental health treatment as a means to prevent mass shootings, and stressed his support for gun rights.
"I am a firm believer in the Second Amendment, I stand by the Second Amendment and I will fight for the Second Amendment as we go forward," Reed said last October, after a shooter in Las Vegas killed 58 in the largest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
But on Tuesday, Reed said he would even be willing to consider moving the age of purchase for assault weapons from 18 to 21.
"Maybe we move everything to age 21," including the age for military service, Reed said. "Maybe that's the new standard, given our life expectancy."
Reed's shift on guns is minimal, though, compared to the shifts that Higgins and Gillibrand have made over the years. They both accepted money from the National Rifle Association early in their congressional careers, only to later become vehement critics of the organization.
Both now strongly support an assault weapons ban – something that the Republican leadership in Congress won't consider.
"There's no reason any civilian of any age should possess this kind of a rifle," said Higgins, of Buffalo.
Gillibrand agreed, saying, on a video on Twitter: "It's outrageous that Congress has done nothing in the face of all this death. I'm going to demand that we have a vote on background checks, a vote on banning assault rifles, a ban on having no gun trafficking, a vote on banning bump stocks, a vote on making sure that people who are mentally ill or have violent crimes do not buy weapons."
How many must die before Congress takes action? There’s no excuse. pic.twitter.com/L5Qa7CRZpi
— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) February 22, 2018
Gillibrand's statement stands in stark contrast to what Schumer has been saying.
Schumer wrote the now-expired 1994 assault weapons ban when he was in the House, and he is an original co-sponsor of a measure introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., which would restore that ban.
But in six press statements and three Senate floor speeches since the Parkland murders, Schumer has not once pushed an assault weapons ban.
Now the leader of a minority with six Democratic senators up for re-election in states that Republican Donald Trump won in the 2016 presidential election, Schumer appears to be moderating his rhetoric accordingly, focusing on less controversial measures to improve background checks.
“Democrats believe that, at a minimum, the congressional response to the Parkland shooting should include universal background check legislation that would close the gun show and internet sales loopholes that allow guns to fall into the wrong hands," Schumer said in his most recent statement on Monday.