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Year after Las Vegas shooting, little progress on gun bills

WASHINGTON — Bartender Heather Gooze was terrified in July when fireworks exploded over Las Vegas, with its crowds and brilliantly lit casinos.

The sharp crack of the colorful blasts brought back darker memories for Gooze, a survivor of the Oct. 1 shooting.

“The fireworks sounded exactly like the gunshots,” she recalled. “The 4th of July was horrific.”

Gooze continues to grapple with the emotional baggage from the Las Vegas shooting, and she is disillusioned that a year later nothing has been done on the federal level, despite all the good intentions and promises from the White House and Congress.

Last year she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about her “night of terror” at the Route 91 Harvest festival. In her testimony, Gooze urged lawmakers to ban “bump stocks,” the devices used by the Las Vegas gunman to accelerate the rate of fire of semi-automatic rifles to nearly that of automatic weapons.

In the wake of the shooting, Congress filed a flurry of bills, including those that would ban or restrict bump stocks. But lawmakers failed to pass any of the gun bills.

President Donald Trump also called for tighter regulations on bump stocks by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. That remains under review.

Since the Las Vegas tragedy, another mass shooting occurred at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. That shooting led to legislation adopted to strengthen the national database used in background checks for firearm purchases.

A few months later, the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting captured the nation’s attention and spurred a grassroots movement for gun safety legislation headed by students who survived the harrowing experience.

Gooze returned to Washington this spring for the March for Our Lives, where hundreds of thousands gathered to advocate for gun safety legislation following the Florida high school shooting. Although she’s not a gun owner, she’s been around them, and she believes in the Second Amendment.

After a year of reflection, she does not understand why lawful gun owners don’t support background checks for purchases and a ban on bump stocks.

Gooze also has become wise to the sharp division of public opinion on the issue and the zero-sum politics played by advocates and special interests. She is leery of the public exposure her volunteer efforts have brought.

“I don’t like to take sides politically. I don’t like that this has become a political debate,” she said. “It’s become so ugly.”

Since the Oct. 1 shooting, Gooze understands the gun debate on a more personal level.

“You don’t think it’s a big deal until it happens to you,” she said.

Bump stock ban

In the Las Vegas shooting, Stephen Paddock, 64, attached bump stocks to 13 semi-automatic rifles that he used to shoot from his hotel suite into a crowd of 22,000 concertgoers. The shooting claimed the lives of 58 people and wounded hundreds more, making it the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Immediately following the shooting, lawmakers drafted legislation to restrict gun purchases or ban devices like bump stocks and trigger mechanisms in an attempt to prevent another such attack. Those measures remain bottled up in House and Senate committees.

The Trump administration called on the ATF, an agency under the Justice Department, to review its 2010 ruling that bump stocks were not machine guns and were legal under current law.

Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei, both Nevada Republicans, joined in the call for administrative action on bump stock devices, a measure endorsed by the National Rifle Association.

“The NRA believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations,” the NRA said in a statement for this story.

Heller said he spoke to the president about an ATF review of the ruling during a flight on Air Force One from Washington to Las Vegas in the days following the shooting.

“He was very receptive,” Heller said of Trump’s interest in an administrative change over legislation. “Frankly, I don’t think it would have passed on the Senate floor.”

ATF review

At the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, ATF officials said the agency would likely need legislation to overturn the 2010 ruling, which found that bump stocks still required a finger pull to fire a round from a semi-automatic weapon.

“What the ATF said initially was that they didn’t have the jurisdiction, and that’s why they needed legislation,” said Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., whose congressional district includes the Las Vegas shooting site.

Titus said it was a Republican ruse to appease the NRA to seek a rule change.

“For them to say ‘go back to the ATF’ was just a stalling tactic. I think it was just a way to get around doing something substantive,” Titus said.

She and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., a former FBI agent, filed a bill in the House that would authorize the ATF to tightly regulate bump stocks and other devices.

The bill was backed by the two other Nevada Democrats in the House, Jacky Rosen and Ruben Kihuen. But it never received a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee.

A year later, Amodei said the ATF rule-making process “has been kind of disappointing.” A ruling is not expected until early next year.

Amodei said that if the ATF does not tighten regulations on the devices, “they are going to get some legislative attention.”

If the current rule is changed, Gun Owners of America is legally “prepared to challenge that as soon as it is finalized,” said Michael Hammond, legal counsel for the group. Hammond said the rule change would be unconstitutional.

Other legislative efforts

Meanwhile, mass shootings that occurred after the Las Vegas tragedy have prompted other legislative efforts.

A bill filed by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to tighten requirements for federal and state agencies to report domestic violence to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, commonly called the “Fix NICS” bill was co-sponsored by Nevada lawmakers and signed into law.

The legislation was a response to the Sutherland Springs church shooting where the killer, Devin Patrick, was able to purchase weapons after the Air Force failed to report domestic violence incidents and charges.

A bill by Rosen to make domestic violence a crime under the military code that must be reported to the NICS was also signed into law. Congress also gave authority to the Centers for Disease Control to conduct research on gun violence.

But those laws are considered feel-good measures by gun safety groups.

Robin Lloyd with the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence said it is “incredibly disappointing” that Congress has failed to address gun safety as the levels of violence continue to grow. She said Congress “is not taking this seriously.”

By comparison, 26 states have passed some form of gun-safety legislation with nine states banning bump stocks, according to the Giffords center.

‘Comfort and support’

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., who introduced Gooze at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last year, said sensible gun measures introduced in Congress have been blocked by Republican leadership.

Cortez Masto, a gun owner, remembers vividly the Oct. 1 tragedy. Her niece had tickets to the festival, and in the early hours and confusion, family members were anxious to hear about her whereabouts. The niece was home safe.

The senator has been involved with victims’ families since the shooting. She said it is a continual need, as a community, to “show that comfort and support.”

“I also think we have a role to play here in Congress, which is to insure that we work on common-sense policies that save lives and can prevent another God-forbidden massacre,” Cortez Masto said.

Contact Gary Martin at gmartin@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7390. Follow @garymartindc on Twitter.

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