The fight over AR-15s and other popular firearms took a somewhat unexpected turn this week when Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) brought a ban to the floor. Its failure, and the particular way it failed, provides a lot of insight into where the fight is at in late 2023.
On Monday, Senator Schumer announced he would bring a bill to ban “assault weapons” to the floor. That was a bit of a surprise since there wasn’t any real buildup to the vote, and none of the proposed bans had been through the normal legislative process. But it did come just a week after a group of more moderate Democrats announced a rebranded ban. So, initially, it seemed this vote might be an effort to capitalize off that political momentum.
After all, three of the four co-sponsors for the Gas-Operated Semi-automatic Firearm Exclusion (GOSAFE) Act have never sponsored a ban on the sale of semi-automatic, centerfire guns with detachable magazines at issue in these bills. That gave it a better, though far from certain, chance of getting at least a majority of the Senate on board.
However, Senator Schumer did not put GOSAFE on the floor. He put up the Assault Weapons Ban of 2023 instead. That is a much more established bill, given that GOSAFE hasn’t even been assigned a bill number yet, but its ceiling seems pretty well locked in.
With just 45 sponsors, the Assault Weapons Ban of 2023 doesn’t have majority support. It couldn’t get the three Democrats backing GOSAFE as sponsors before Wednesday’s vote. Nor did any of the other three Senators who caucus with the Democrats but who haven’t backed either bill announce their support before it went to the floor. Neither did any Republican.
In fact, the only person who hadn’t already made their position clear on the bill that did speak out about it ahead of the vote was Senator Jon Tester (D., Mont.). And he came out against it.
“As a proud gun-owner and strong supporter of the Second Amendment, Senator Tester opposes banning assault weapons and will always protect the rights of law-abiding Montana gun owners,” a Tester spokesperson told The Reload on Wednesday.
That means the bill would need to pick up either the rest of the Democratic caucus or a few Republicans to even get to a majority, let alone the 60 votes needed to break a potential filibuster. But we didn’t even get to see if it could muster that because of the way it was brought to the floor. Instead of scheduling a vote on the bill itself, Senator Schumer requested unanimous consent to suspend the normal legislative rules and pass the bill immediately.
There was no hope this would actually work, and it didn’t. Senator Schumer knew, as everybody else knows, there isn’t unanimous agreement around banning guns like the AR-15 or magazines that hold more than ten rounds of ammunition. In fact, he likely did it this way because he understands the opposite is probably closer to the truth.
There probably aren’t 50 votes for an assault weapons ban in the Senate today.
It’s impossible to know how moderates who’ve resisted sponsoring an assault weapons ban, such as Senators Kyrsten Sinema (I., Ariz.) or Susan Collins (R., Maine), would vote if they were forced to take a position. But the fact that this vote was set up in a way that wouldn’t force them to do so is telling in and of itself.
A unanimous consent request allowed Senator Schumer to technically put the bill on the floor and show he was making an effort for gun-control activists without forcing any vulnerable Democrats to take a position if they didn’t want to. That Senator Tester, who is facing a tough re-election in a state where Donald Trump won 57 percent of the vote, chose to make his opposition known speaks to the dynamics of his race.
But Senator Schumer’s move and Senator Tester’s response to it also revealed the effort to ban these kinds of guns is on at least somewhat shakier ground than we knew for sure last week. As I noted in my analysis of the GOSAFE Act’s rollout, the senators who backed the bill aren’t really the ones worth watching in this political debate because they’d previously expressed support for some kind of ban on assault weapons. Instead, the Democrats to watch are Sinema, Tester, and Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.). The Republicans to watch are Senators Collins, Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska), and Mitt Romney (R., Utah).
I reached out to all of them about Wednesday’s unanimous consent request, but only Senator Tester responded. None of the rest spoke for or against the assault weapons ban. They haven’t made any public statements on the bill either.
There’s still some possibility that the GOSAFE Act will come back around down the line for a serious legislative push. It has a better chance of getting a majority of Senators behind it than the Assault Weapons Ban of 2023 did. But “check the box” political events like Wednesday’s unanimous consent request tend to signal the Senate is going to move on to other issues rather than double down and try again. And, with election year less than a month away, moderate Democrats probably won’t want to be forced into a real vote on this issue at all. That’s especially true since the end result of getting to 50, or even 60, votes would still ultimately be messaging, given the Republican-controlled House is sure not to follow suit anyway.