Inside Mitch McConnell’s decades-long effort to block gun control

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Mitch McConnell was just finishing up his first term as the junior senator from Kentucky when a mass shooting rocked his hometown of Louisville.

On Sept. 14, 1989, a disgruntled employee entered the Standard Gravure printing plant in downtown Louisville and, armed with an AK-47 and other guns, killed eight and wounded 12 others before taking his own life — in what remains the deadliest mass shooting in the state’s history.

At the time, mass shootings had not yet become the staple of American life that they are now, and McConnell said he was “deeply disturbed,” declaring, “We must take action to stop such vicious crimes.”

But he also added: “We need to be careful about legislating in the middle of a crisis.” And in the days and weeks after, he did not join others in calling for a ban on assault weapons like the AK-47 used by the shooter.

The Standard Gravure massacre provided an early glimpse of how McConnell — now the Republican Senate minority leader — would handle mass shootings and their aftermath over the next three decades, consistently working to delay, obstruct or prevent most major gun control legislation from passing Congress.

McConnell would go on to follow a similar playbook time and time again during his seven terms in Congress, offering vague promises of action, often without any specifics, only to be followed by no action or incremental measures that avoided new gun regulations. As a Republican leader, he also helped dissuade his conference — as after the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. — from supporting gun legislation and, as majority leader, refused to bring up significant gun control measures for a vote.

Now, the latest devastating and high-profile mass shootings — a massacre Tuesday at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Tex., that left 19 students and two teachers dead, just 10 days after a racist slaughter at Buffalo supermarket that killed 10 — have thrust Congress back into a fiery debate over what, if anything, lawmakers can do to curb gun violence.

On Thursday, McConnell told CNN that he had encouraged Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) to reach out to Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) — who made gun control a personal project after Sandy Hook — to begin discussing what bipartisan measures might be possible.

But many Democrats and anti-gun advocates remain skeptical, predicting that McConnell and his fellow Republicans are poised to obstruct any consequential gun-violence prevention bills yet again.

“If there’s any one individual in the United States to blame for our inability to put things in place to prevent gun violence, it’s Mitch McConnell,” said Peter Ambler, the executive director of Giffords, a group devoted to fighting gun violence. “McConnell understands he’s hostage to that extreme base that just doesn’t tolerate any departure from any of their views.”

Many Republicans say that McConnell is less a singular obstacle than a savvy leader who is able to his read his conference and make decisions that help his senators and protect them politically. “McConnell knows where his members stand and makes the tough calls to protect their interests,” a senior Republican aide said, explaining McConnell’s overall motivations in addressing gun violence and gun legislation.

McConnell declined to comment.

In 1990, the year after the Standard Gravure shooting, McConnell was up for reelection and found himself in a close race with Democrat Harvey Sloane, then the Jefferson County judge executive and a former Louisville mayor, who had called for banning assault weapons.

In 2013, following Sandy Hook, Sloane recounted in Louisville’s Courier-Journal newspaper that as his race with McConnell tightened in the final stretch, McConnell and the National Rifle Association “blistered the state falsely as to how this ban would eventually take away ‘your hunting gun and the hand pistol you need for personal protection.’ ”

McConnell defeated Sloane by five percentage points and, in his second term in the Senate, went on to vote against both the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993 and the Federal Assault Weapons Ban in 1994.

“Mitch is really Machiavellian,” Sloane said in an interview with The Washington Post last week. “He’s single-handedly held up any kind of gun legislation that’s meaningful.”

‘It didn’t change a thing’

In September 2019, a group of gun control advocates — including Kris Brown, the president of Brady, a gun violence prevention organization; Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights icon; and Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), who lost her 17-year-old son in a 2012 shooting — gathered on the West Lawn of the Capitol for a rally in favor of tougher background checks.

After the rally, some in the group — which also included some McConnell constituents — decided to make their way to the then-majority leader’s office for what Lewis might have called “good trouble.”

“So we walked over, John Lewis kind of leading us, talking about the importance of peaceful resistance,” Brown recalled, adding that Lewis asked if someone should get Depends — a brand of adult diapers — because the group might be there for a while.

“His staffers had no idea what to do with us,” Brown said. “McConnell didn’t have the human decency to sit down with John Lewis.”

Instead, a McConnell staffer ushered the group into a conference room and met with them for over an hour. Brown said that the staffer clearly seemed moved by Lewis, telling him that she held him in high esteem, and by the victims of gun violence, who recounted their stories one after another.

“She was moved to tears, but it didn’t change a thing,” Brown said, saying the staffer essentially told the group “that it was just the wrong time to bring this bill forward.”

Doug Andres, a McConnell spokesman, said McConnell had been unable to meet with the group at the time because it was a surprise visit and he already had constituent meetings planned. He said the staffer simply explained to the group that then-president Donald Trump was unlikely to sign the bill they were pitching, and McConnell was not going to advocate for legislation he knew would fail.

For McConnell, however, the time has rarely seemed right.

Almost immediately after Sandy Hook, then-President Barack Obama tasked then-Vice President Joe Biden with putting together a robust policy response. McConnell — then the Senate minority leader — downplayed the effort.

Asked about gun control issues on ABC’s “This Week” in January 2013 — less than month after Sandy Hook — McConnell said he was waiting to see Biden’s proposal but did not plan to prioritize it over other issues like “spending and debt” in the coming months.

Then, later that month — after Obama signed 23 executive orders on guns in response to the tragedy that left 20 kindergartners dead — McConnell recorded a robocall and sent it out to gun owners in his state.

The Senate Republican leader has spent his career working to delay, obstruct or prevent most major firearms restrictions from being approved by Congress. (Video: Joy Yi/The Washington Post, Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP/The Washington Post)

“President Obama and his team are doing everything in their power to restrict your constitutional right to keep and bear arms,” McConnell said in the recording. “Their efforts to restrict your rights, invading your personal privacy and overstepping their bounds with executive orders, is just plain wrong.”

McConnell also refused a meeting with the Sandy Hook families, according to someone familiar with the request, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal details. But eventually, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) negotiated a modest bipartisan background checks bill, known as Manchin-Toomey.

At the time, McConnell was still adjusting to the rise of the hard-right tea party movement in the Republican base; in the 2010 Republican Senate primary in Kentucky, Rand Paul vanquished Trey Grayson, McConnell’s handpicked candidate, by riding the tea party wave in what some also viewed as a stinging rebuke of McConnell. And by 2013, McConnell was already preparing for his 2014 reelection bid.

When Manchin-Toomey finally came to the Senate floor for a vote in April 2013, McConnell pushed his conference to oppose the bill, which ultimately failed 54-46, falling short of the 60 votes needed for passage.

“McConnell whipped hard against it. McConnell is obsessed with protecting his right flank,” said Adam Jentleson, who at the time worked for then-Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), explaining why McConnell helped tank the background check bill. “It’s why he’s been able to survive as leader for so long.”

Jesse Benton — a conservative activist who managed Paul’s 2010 Senate campaign and who McConnell enlisted to manage his 2014 one — said that McConnell at the time “said something to me like, ‘I hope you know I’m not planning on supporting any of this crap.’ ”

“He’s not a firebrand like some of the [pro-gun] activists want, but he makes it clear to his team that he is a Second Amendment believer,” Benton said. “He respects the legislative process and the fact that there are differing opinions in his own caucus, but he works it in his own way, as only he can.”

McConnell was, at other times, willing to entertain the idea of some legislation on guns, partly as a way of releasing pressure from members of his caucus who wanted to show some legislative action after mass shootings.

But that approach has also earned him the ire of some Second Amendment advocates, some of whom ran ads against him during his 2014 primary.

“When the going gets tough, Mitch McConnell has always been absent from the fight,” said Dudley Brown, the president of the National Association for Gun Rights, a hard-line alternative to the NRA. “He has never stood up when it was really tough.”

‘An obstacle to taking any action’

For McConnell, 2018 opened with a mass shooting at Marshall County High School near Benton, Ky., where a 15-year-old student killed two and injured more than a dozen others that January. The following month, another school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., left 17 dead and drew yet another national outcry for stronger gun measures.

At the time, Trump offered messaging whiplash. In a meeting with Democratic and Republican lawmakers two weeks after Parkland, he called for “comprehensive” gun legislation and chided Republicans for being “petrified” of the NRA. But the next day, he hosted an NRA lobbyist in the Oval Office, declared the meeting “great” on Twitter and seemed to lose interest in working on gun reform.

Still, a McConnell aide said, the combination of the Florida and Kentucky school shootings prompted McConnell, by then the Senate majority leader, to help pass two modest bills on background checks (the Fix NICS Act) and school safety (the STOP School Violence Act).

The Fix NICS Act helped improve the criminal background checks system to make background checks more thorough and accurate, and the stopping school violence measure authorized additional funding for improving school security and early intervention and school violence prevention programs.

Another big push for gun legislation came in the summer of 2019, following back-to-back shootings on Aug. 3 and 4 at a Walmart Supercenter in majority-Hispanic El Paso and in a nightlife corridor in Dayton, Ohio, which left a combined 23 people dead and dozens more injured.

The Democratic blowback was fierce and directed squarely at McConnell — who was again campaigning for reelection — since the House had already passed a background check bill.

“I hope that Sen. McConnell would bring the Senate back tomorrow and pass the background check bill and send it to the president,” Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown said after the shootings.

The same day, Shannon Watts of Moms Demand Action, a gun violence prevention group, declared, “We need Mitch McConnell to allow a vote.”

The Twitter account of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) retweeted both statements, and several days later, Pelosi wrote a public letter to Trump asking him to call on McConnell — whom she described as “an obstacle to taking any action” — to call the Senate back into session.

By the night of Aug. 4, protesters had gathered outside McConnell’s Kentucky home with profane chants. Days later, dozens gathered outside his Louisville office.

That Thursday, Aug. 8, McConnell went on Louisville’s WHAS-AM radio to say he had spoken with Trump and was ready to take action. The president, he said, was “anxious to get an outcome, and so am I.”

“What we can’t do is fail to pass something,” McConnell said. “What I want to see here is an outcome.”

He added that background checks — which he said had “a lot of support” publicly — and red flag measures would likely lead the discussion.

But a special session was never called.

The week before returning to Washington, McConnell did an interview with Hugh Hewitt on Sept. 3 that laid out a different benchmark, deferring to Trump: “I said several weeks ago that if the president took a position on a bill so that we knew we would actually be making a law and not just having serial votes, I’d be happy to put it on the floor.”

By the time McConnell brought the Senate back in session, his focus had shifted. In his first remarks on the Senate floor, McConnell made no mention of the gun issue. Just over a week later, The Post reported on a whistleblower complaint about Trump’s communications with a foreign leader, eventually leading to Trump’s first impeachment for his efforts to withhold military aid to Ukraine — drawing Trump’s attention away from guns.

This past Wednesday, the day after the devastating Uvalde elementary school shooting, McConnell — now the Senate minority leader again — took to the Senate floor to declare himself and the nation “sickened and outraged by the senseless evil” that left at least 19 students and two teachers “murdered for no apparent reason at all.”

He did not mention guns or any possible legislation, instead focusing on the “innocent young lives” that were prematurely extinguished.

“Words simply fail,” McConnell said.

On Thursday, however, McConnell tasked Cornyn with negotiating with Democrats.

“Maybe this will provide some impetus” for compromise, Cornyn told reporters at the Capitol on Thursday. “This is horrible. Hard to imagine anything that could be worse than parents worrying about the safety of their kids going to school.”

But most Republicans signaled in recent days that major legislation remains unlikely.

“There are no right words to describe the heartbreaking and horrific tragedy that happened at Robb Elementary School,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), before adding later: “We must be thoughtful about how we discuss and handle school safety and mental health issues. Federal changes should not be made in haste, and there’s still many details we do not know as the investigation continues.”

After a vigil for the Uvalde victims, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) stormed away from an interview when a British reporter asked him why mass shootings happen “only in America.” Cruz accused the reporter of having a “political agenda.”

Cruz also dismissed Democratic gun violence prevention proposals, saying that none of them would have stopped the Uvalde shooting, and later suggested legislation to “harden schools” — such as having only one usable door.

On Friday, Trump — still the de facto leader of the Republican Party — joined other Republican officials in delivering a defiant response to the Uvalde massacre at an NRA annual meeting in Houston, arguing that new gun restrictions were pointless.

Support for stricter gun laws has increased after mass shootings at schools. In March 2018, shortly after the Parkland shooting, 67 percent said in a Gallup Poll that laws should be more strict — an increase from 60 percent who said the same in October 2017. Similarly, support for stricter laws jumped from 43 percent to 58 percent after the Sandy Hook shooting.

In contrast to support for gun restrictions in general, support for expanding background checks has stayed very high over time. A Pew Research Center poll last year found 81 percent of Americans supported making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks, including 70 percent of Republicans and 92 percent of Democrats. A 63 percent majority supported a ban on assault-style weapons, including 83 percent of Democrats and less than half as many Republicans (37 percent).

But many gun-control advocates and Democrats remain skeptical that Republicans are prepared to change their approach. Matt Bennett — a co-founder of Third Way, a Democratic think tank — said polarized politics prevents the handful of Republicans who may privately support some gun safety laws to do so publicly.

“The ones who believe in their hearts that they should do something — and who knows how many there truly are — don’t want to do it, because they don’t want to get crosswise with the base,” Bennett said.

John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, latched onto McConnell’s declaration on the Senate floor that “words simply fail.”

He said he agrees completely.

“I don’t want to mince words. The Republican senators are what is costing American lives. And McConnell is the head of the Republican Senate,” Feinblatt said. “I am encouraged that McConnell gave the green light to Cornyn. That is what I would call step one.”

“But,” he added, “There is no question about it: Inaction is not an option.”

Emily Guskin, Colby Itkowitz, Alice Crites and Laura Meckler contributed to this report.

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