Arizona Sen. Martha McSally will soon be a central player in the congressional debate over gun control legislation.
The freshman Republican, who was appointed to fill the seat of the late Sen. John McCain and could have a tough re-election contest next fall, is certain to face intense scrutiny over her support — or lack thereof — of any sweeping gun control efforts floated when Congress reconvenes in September.
In the wake of the mass shootings that rocked the nation in recent weeks, McSally has suggested some willingness to consider gun control measures, an apparent shift from her previous stance on the topic.
Speaking to reporters in Phoenix on Thursday, McSally said she’s “in conversations” about specific legislative efforts to prevent gun violence, like red flag laws, assault weapons bans and stricter background checks. She said, “We need to strengthen the background check system for sure.”
She also suggested that the federal government could perhaps aid state-level gun control initiatives. She specifically cited a red flag-style proposal by Gov. Doug Ducey that would allow people to go to court and request a Severe Threat Order of Protection that would remove someone’s access to firearms if they’re deemed dangerous.
“Gov. Ducey is leading an … initiative here on the red flag laws. That happens often at the state levels. We can do some things at the federal level perhaps to incentivize, again providing the opportunity for us to stop people who are mentally ill, unstable or terrorists from having access to firearms,” she said.
But McSally declined to say which specific bills she might support, or whether she would back H.R. 8, a bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives this year and would expand background checks for all gun sales.
“I’m not going to talk about hypothetical legislation that I have not seen,” she said.
McSally also stressed the need to protect “the due process and the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens.”
McSally has raised $372,615 from gun rights groups during her congressional career, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. She’s No. 5 on the list of federal lawmakers who have received the most money from gun rights advocates dating back to 1989.
The Arizona Republican could soon face a floor vote on the issue.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said the chamber will debate gun control when lawmakers reconvene in September, and some congressional Republicans have expressed an increased willingness to wade into the politically thorny territory.
“The fact that Mitch McConnell and [South Carolina Republican Sen.] Lindsey Graham and Donald Trump all feel some level of pressure to at least say that they are going to consider some gun violence prevention bills is a pretty big sign of progress,” said Chelsea Parsons, vice president of gun violence prevention policy at the Center for American Progress.
If McSally ultimately votes for tighter controls, she could help tip the GOP-controlled Senate toward enacting new gun restrictions after previous efforts have flopped. If not, she will undoubtedly be assailed by Democrats in a 2020 race that promises to be one of the most competitive in the nation.
The Democratic frontrunner in the Senate race, former astronaut Mark Kelly, has been an outspoken advocate of gun control since his wife, former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was shot in Tucson in 2011.
Following the shootings earlier this month in El Paso and Dayton, Kelly told Tucson television station KGUN 9, “We certainly have an issue in this country, 40 thousand people dying every year from gun violence, needs to be addressed.”
McSally previously told the Arizona Republic that she’s “certainly open” to legislative solutions to address gun control at the federal level. She also said after the shootings that she plans to introduce legislation next month that would make domestic terrorism a punishable federal crime.
She touted that legislation again at her press conference Thursday.
“We’ve gotten some strong feedback, positive, on both sides of the aisle, in the House and the Senate and the White House about this legislation,” she said.
Her stated willingness to entertain stricter gun control laws appear to mark a shift from some of her earlier comments on the issue.
During her unsuccessful congressional bid in a 2012 special election, she said at a GOP debate, “Just like I can sell my car, I can sell my gun, and so that’s the law and it’s not a loophole. It’s freedom and absolutely it needs to stay that way because any restrictions on that at gun shows or other places is just absolutely unconstitutional.”
She received an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association when she was a Senate candidate in 2018, although the NRA has since taken down its ratings.
McSally said Thursday that her position on guns hasn’t changed. “I have been very consistent,” she said.
Democratic strategist Andy Barr doesn’t expect McSally to back any major reforms in the Senate.
“Just because she’s gotten a little squishier on an issue, I’m not convinced that she’s going to vote in a way that’s sensible,” he said. “She does this all the time, where she will say something and vote a completely different way.”
Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema could be another key vote on gun control in the Senate, although the freshman Democrat also hasn’t said publicly which specific legislative measures she might get behind.
“Kyrsten believes the levels of gun violence in the United States are unacceptable, and wants to see both parties forge a productive conversation surrounding firearms,” her spokeswoman told the Arizona Mirror.
She did not comment on whether Sinema might support H.R. 8 or other specific efforts to enhance background checks, or enact red flag laws or weapons bans.
Broadly, her spokeswoman said, Sinema supports legislation to deny terrorists access to firearms, expand access to behavioral health services, expand mental health first aid training for first responders and school staff, conduct research to help understand the causes of gun violence and expand the current background check system.
Even if senators can find common ground on gun control, it’s unclear whether bipartisan compromise legislation would pass in the Democratic-controlled House.
Some Democratic lawmakers have suggested they won’t endorse legislation that’s less restrictive than H.R. 8, which passed with the support of just eight Republicans.
All four of Arizona’s Republican lawmakers — Reps. Paul Gosar, Andy Biggs, David Schweikert and Debbie Lesko — voted against the bill. Their offices did not respond to requests for comment about what, if any, gun control legislation they might be willing to support.
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) chastised his Republican colleagues for their refusal to support stricter gun laws.
“The NRA’s death grip on the Republican Party has prevented Congress from taking the strong action we need to keep our communities and children safe by passing gun safety legislation,” Grijalva said. “We must continue to push stronger legislation that provides universal background checks, bans assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and closes loopholes while demanding that Mitch McConnell end his senseless blockade of legislation like H.R. 8”.
Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) “wants to see an aggressive gun safety bill like H.R. 8 passed and signed into law,” according to her spokeswoman, Abigail O’Brien.
“In addition, she supports requiring background checks for all firearm sales, offering federal incentives for states to pass ‘red flag’ or ‘extreme risk’ laws that allow courts to temporarily take firearms away from people suspected of being a danger to the public, banning the sale of some semiautomatic assault-style weapons, such as the AK-47 or the AR-15, and banning magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition,” O’Brien said.
Kirkpatrick “would need to review the Senate gun legislation before determining her support, however she is adamant about the need for us to pass some gun safety measure immediately.”
Bravender reported from Washington; Duda from Phoenix.