WASHINGTON — In the wake of back-to-back mass shootings, some lawmakers are looking to tighten gun laws, but one former Republican member says Congress won’t pass gun control now because his party couldn’t get the most “benign” things done after Sandy Hook.
Former representative Scott Rigell, who represented an Eastern Virginia district from 2011 to 2017, said Republicans won’t move on gun control because they're told not to politicize gun tragedy, pointing to Congress’s history of failed gun control attempts, all of which have been blocked by Republican leaders since the Sandy Hook shooting. The three-term Congress member faced opposition from fellow Republicans and pro-gun organizations when he tried to cross the aisle to pass gun control.
“There was no appetite — zero — for advancing any substantive legislation like the legislation that I proposed with [Democratic Rep.] Elijah Cummings, even though it was very, in my view, benign,” Rigell told BuzzFeed News on Monday.
Within weeks of the Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, Rigell teamed up with Cummings to introduce bipartisan gun control legislation in early February 2012. The Gun Trafficking Prevention Act of 2013 would have made gun trafficking and straw purchases — buying a firearm with the intention of giving it to someone else — a federal crime. Four other Republican members of Congress cosponsored the proposed legislation. But the bill never made it out of a Republican-led House Judiciary subcommittee.
“I mean, we’re talking about, by definition, the people I was going after were criminals,” Rigell told BuzzFeed News. “They were criminals. That was the definition we were using, so I thought, Well, who’s going to have a problem going after criminals and increasing the penalty for criminals?
“But my own party was,” he added. “They had no interest in advancing that.”
At the time, Rigell had been a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association; he has since resigned from the organization because of its “reflexive opposition to any gun-related legislation.” Rigell said his experience has been that “content doesn’t matter; if it’s gun-related, they will oppose it.”
The pro-gun group had donated $3,000 to help Rigell secure a 2010 victory in his Virginia district and another nearly $5,000 between 2011 and May 2012 to fend off a primary challenger. That would be the NRA’s last contribution.
The following year, after he introduced gun control legislation with Cummings, the National Gun Rights Association — a rival group to the NRA that focuses largely on primarying Republicans — launched a campaign in Rigell’s district that claimed he wanted to curtail Second Amendment rights. The ad included a photo of Rigell morphing into one of then-president Barack Obama, as well as a shot of Rigell alongside other lawmakers standing behind Obama as he signed a bill, implying that it was anti-gun legislation. But Rigell said the group misrepresented the 2011 photo and that the bill Obama was signing designated a national monument in Virginia.
Rigell still won reelection and maintained his seat before ultimately retiring in 2017.
“You know they wanted to make a point out of me that anybody that works outside of their agenda, they’re going to stop supporting, if not outright oppose them,” Rigell said of the NRA and the NGRA. “There is an intense polarization — you’re either with us or against us. That’s the mindset.”
Rigell made clear that he still favors private gun ownership and believes it is a “fundamental right” as an American. As an owner of about a dozen firearms, including an AR-15, he thinks the Democrats have gone too far on some gun control proposals but maintains Republicans are still “paralyzed by fear” of the NRA when prompted to pass sensible gun legislation.
“Trying to actually find that middle ground, and saddle up to it and advance as legislation, is extraordinarily perilous for the average legislator. It just is,” Rigell said.
“Let me be clear: I don’t think all of these things, or even most of them, can be prevented by the passage of a law. I mean, some of these things are systemic to what’s happening in our culture and the devaluation of life and the intense polarization,” Rigell added. “But I think there are some things that can be done.”
Within hours of the initial mass shooting last weekend, many Republican politicians, including President Donald Trump, blamed video games, social media, and mental illness. As public outcry grew, some Republicans announced legislation to counter gun violence.
On Monday, Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania told reporters he’d make a push to revive the Manchin-Toomey Act, which he introduced with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin after the Sandy Hook shooting. The bill, which had shown potential for passage after the devastation of that shooting in which 26 people, including 20 children, were killed, ultimately failed in the Senate in 2013. It would have required background checks for all commercial gun sales but faced steep opposition from the NRA. Only four Republicans voted for the bill: Toomey, Sen. Susan Collins, and then-senators Mark Kirk and John McCain.
“I don’t know exactly if we will get a different outcome this time,” Toomey told reporters Monday. “I certainly hope we do. I hope if nothing else, the accumulated pain from so many of these horrific experiences will be motivation to do something.”
Toomey said he’d spoken to Trump on Monday morning about reviving the bill and other possible legislation on gun violence. Trump seemed to nod to the legislation in a tweet early Monday morning, calling for a bipartisan effort to pass “strong background checks” for gun sales. But three hours later, during a press conference on the white supremacist terror act in El Paso, Texas, and a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, the president didn’t mention the legislation.
The Democratic-led House also passed background check bills earlier this year. Democrats have been pushing for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring senators back to Washington to pass the bills and send them to Trump’s desk to sign. The White House said in February that Trump would veto the House bills, saying they violate the Second Amendment.
“Absent direct support from President Trump, I don’t see anything getting signed, no matter what happens at the representative or the US Senate level,” Rigell said.