Could the Atlanta Spa Shootings Break Congress’s Gun Control Impasse?

Unfortunately, there’s always one more. Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

When the U.S. House passed two measures tightening gun-sale background checks in early March, its proponents obviously didn’t know we’d soon be dealing with a horrific series of fatal shootings at Atlanta-area spas that left eight people dead, including six Asian women. But Democrats, having just won control of both houses of Congress and the presidency, were eager to launch another push to get rudimentary gun-safety legislation past obdurate Senate Republicans — or at least embarrass the GOP in the eyes of the general public, which strongly supports such legislation.

As NPR reported, the two bills aimed at different problems with the current background-check procedure: the “gun show loophole,” which exempts firearms obtained at private sales, and the “Charleston loophole” (named for the 2015 gun massacre in that city, in which a white supremacist killed nine Black churchgoers), which provide only a brief review period for background-check findings. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer has indicated he would give such legislation a vote, which, typically, Mitch McConnell would not. But the problem remains: So long as the filibuster stays in place, there is no reasonable hope that enough Republicans will support any sort of firearms bill unless it’s somehow blessed by the gun lobby as pro Second Amendment. And the gun lobby, despite the National Rifle Association’s internal problems, claims we need more, not fewer, protections for gun rights.

The last time legislation aimed at the gun-show loophole made it to the Senate floor — in a 2015 compromise proposal supported by Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey with a “family friend” exception for gun sales — it won only four Republican votes, counting Toomey’s, despite overwhelming bipartisan public support. The exact same thing happened in 2013. And the two senators could not even get a vote in 2019, despite meeting with Donald Trump on the subject.

Will the fresh violence in Atlanta change the calculus in Washington? Recent history suggests prospects are grim. The 2013 push for background-check legislation occurred in the wake of the Sandy Hook school massacre, and the 2015 bid happened soon after another murder spree, that time in San Bernardino. Yes, even before the news from Atlanta, Schumer announced that the Senate would definitely vote on background-check legislation, and the new bloodshed might speed up that development. But Second Amendment advocates will likely point out that the Atlanta suspect appears to have had a clean criminal record and bought his gun at a shop, not a show. And in any event, Republicans will argue they’d be willing to support such legislation only if Democrats support a broadening of gun rights in other areas (e.g., mandatory state reciprocity for concealed-carry licenses).

Perhaps the most significant effect in Washington of the nightmare in Atlanta will be to add another shaming example to the list of important things the filibuster — whose modification or abolition is now supported by most Democrats — prevents from being enacted. It will escape no one’s notice that the perpetually frustrated co-sponsor of the gun-show-loophole bill, Joe Manchin, is also one of two Senate Democrats publicly defending the filibuster. Maybe the new outrage will help move him off the dime.

Could the Atlanta Massacre Break the Gun-Control Impasse?