The White House said Monday it has drafted legislation with the Justice Department that would expedite the death penalty for people found guilty of committing mass shootings, following Saturday’s attack in West Texas that left seven dead, according to a pool report.
Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, told reporters aboard Air Force Two that the initiative was part of a larger White House gun control package that will be sent to Congress after lawmakers return from their August recess on September 9.
Attorney General Bill Barr is involved in active discussions with the vice president’s office, Short said, as the plane made its way to Ireland.
The issue could be contentious among Democrats seeking to unseat President Donald Trump in 2020. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D) has sought to revive his struggling candidacy by calling for a mandatory buyback of what he called “assault weapons” — but he also has insisted, in a recent policy shift, that capital punishment is categorically wrong.
Still, there has been little hesitation from the Trump administration on the issue.
In August, Trump said he was “directing the Department of Justice to propose legislation ensuring that those who commit hate crimes and mass murders face the death penalty,” adding that he wanted “capital punishment be delivered quickly, decisively, and without years of needless delay.”
Earlier this summer, Barr said the federal government will resume capital punishment and will move forward with plans to execute five inmates on death row for the first time in more than 15 years.
Short’s remarks came as the Chicago Sun-Times reported that 35 people were shot, 7 of them killed, in Chicago over Labor Day weekend.
It also emerged Monday that the gunman in the West Texas rampage over the weekend had been “on a long spiral down” and was fired from his oil services job the morning he killed seven people, calling 911 both before and after the shooting began.
Investigators have not said how the gunman obtained the gun used in the shooting, but he previously had failed a federal background check for a firearm, said John Wester, an agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Officials did not elaborate on when the gunman failed the background check, or why.
Online court records showed the gunman was arrested in 2001 for a misdemeanor offense that would not have prevented him from legally purchasing firearms in Texas. Federal law defines nine categories that would legally prevent a person from owning a gun, which include being convicted of a felony, a misdemeanor domestic violence charge, being the subject of a restraining order or having an active warrant. Authorities have said Ator had no active warrants at the time of the shooting.
In a letter last month to President Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) specifically pushed for the House-passed Bipartisan Background Checks Act and the Enhanced Background Checks Act.
Some of the House-sponsored legislation would extend the time period for the FBI to conduct background checks on firearm purchases from three days to 10 days and establish new background-check procedures for private gun transfers.
Great job by Texas Law Enforcement and First Responders in handling the terrible shooting tragedy yesterday. Thank you also to the FBI, @GregAbbott_TX and all others. A very tough and sad situation!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 1, 2019
Many Republicans said they hoped to take action to curb gun violence. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said his party has been interested in “common sense solutions to prevent this from happening in the future while at the same time protecting due process for anyone who is a law-abiding citizen.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton told the Fox News program “Sunday Morning Futures” that state officials including Gov. Greg Abbott (R) got together as part of a domestic terrorism task force to address the issue.
Paxton said he would like Congress to do the same to try determining “what kind of practices would change this from happening or at least allow us to respond more quickly.”
For his part, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said that so-called “red flag” warning legislation, as well as expanded background checks, would be “front and center” on the Senate floor when Congress comes back in session.
However, red flag laws might be unconstitutional, some conservatives have said, and states and local governments increasingly have sparred over the issue.
More than a dozen states have enacted red flag laws. In March, Colorado’s attorney general testified that county sheriffs vowing not to enforce the state’s anti-gun “red flag” bill should “resign.”
Red flag laws generally require friends or family to establish by a “preponderance of the evidence” — a relatively lax legal standard essentially meaning that something is “more likely than not” — that a person “poses a significant risk to self or others by having a firearm in his or her custody or control or by possessing, purchasing or receiving a firearm.”
Meanwhile, President Trump tweeted Sunday morning, “Great job by Texas Law Enforcement and First Responders in handling the terrible shooting tragedy yesterday. Thank you also to the FBI, @GregAbbott_TX and all others. A very tough and sad situation!”
Late last month, the White House pushed back on claims by the National Rifle Association (NRA) that Trump had said privately that universal background checks were off the table.
Trump has waffled publicly on whether new background checks were needed.
In the wake of two mass shootings last month, overwhelming and bipartisan majorities of voters said they favored background checks on gun buyers and taking guns from people who were a danger to themselves or others, according to a Fox News poll.
Two-thirds also supported a ban on “assault weapons,” although that majority was driven largely by Democrats, and the term remained poorly defined.
Still, asked to choose one or the other, voters said they would rather live in a country where gun ownership was legal than one where guns were banned.
The poll was conducted August 11-13, about a week after the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton.
Gregg Re is a lawyer and editor based in Los Angeles. Fox News’ Ronn Blitzer, Mike Emanuel and the Associated Press contributed to this Fox News report, which is used by permission.