© 2023 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Former McConnell Adviser Says Now Might Be The Time For New Gun Control Measures


OK, let's turn now to the political debate over gun legislation that awaits Congress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he is open to having that debate after lawmakers return to Washington in the fall. Here's what he told Kentucky radio station WHAS last week.


MITCH MCCONNELL: We're going to have these bipartisan discussions and, when we get back, hopefully be able to come together and actually pass something.

CHANG: Those are notable words coming from a Republican who has consistently opposed gun control measures. But those words give Scott Jennings some hope. He's a former adviser to McConnell, and he's all for red flag laws, expanded background checks and a ban on high-capacity magazines and drums. He shared those views last week with McConnell.

SCOTT JENNINGS: I think it's time for something to happen. I think the American people are expecting some responsiveness from the government on these issues. And although I think most people understand that there's no law that can pass Congress that's going to legislate all evil, there are things we can do to try to stop the next person who may be a danger to themselves or to others.

And then in the days since that, what we've seen is President Trump come forward and say that he'd like to see something happen as well. I think if you're a Republican in the U.S. Senate, you're looking to the president here to see what he'd be willing to sign.

CHANG: Now, how did McConnell respond to those specific proposals that you directly put to him?

JENNINGS: Well, I mean, I'm not going to go deep into our personal conversations, but he is open to a discussion about what can be passed into law. He's not interested in grandstanding. He's interested in what can get 60 votes in the Senate and what can get a presidential signature after passing the House.

CHANG: But the way I'm hearing it, McConnell is promising a debate on the floor of the Senate. He's not necessarily promising an outcome that something will definitely pass. Do you hear it differently?

JENNINGS: Well, I don't think you can ever promise an outcome. I mean, every senator gets to vote, and every senator will have to vote the way they think their state and their constituents wants them to vote. But what I think he wants is a chance for a process to occur that could produce an outcome, and that means aligning Trump, a Democrat-controlled House, a Republican-controlled Senate. You've got to align all these disparate players into something that can attract enough votes and a presidential signature.

CHANG: And is it your sense that McConnell intends to throw his weight behind a particular gun control measure?

JENNINGS: No. My sense is he is, at the moment, doing what the majority leader of the Senate is supposed to do, and that's align the stars for a process to occur where a law can be made. And right now, it seems to me the momentum is behind something on background checks and something on red flag laws.

CHANG: That's when a law enforcement official or a family member could petition to get a gun taken away from someone who's at risk.

JENNINGS: That's right. As long as there's the adequate due process and you have the right inputs into that system, I think that would make people feel better. Those seem to be the two things that are attracting the most support, at least from the Republicans.

CHANG: Now, why do you think this moment is different? It's a moment when gun control legislation could theoretically pass the Senate when nothing passed after Newtown, nothing passed after Parkland or any other mass shooting in recent history. Why does this moment seem different to you?

JENNINGS: There's something to be said for responding to these kinds of issues. I mean, I think - I mean, look; I talk to people, and they all have the same question, what is wrong with us, and what can we do about it? And I don't think those people believe that there's a panacea or a magic wand, but they do believe that their politicians can be responsive to moments. We're having a moment. We've been having one for a few years now. And I personally believe we've reached the tipping point of public opinion on it.

CHANG: Given that there are going to be several competitive Senate races in 2020, what do you think the political strategy is here for McConnell to force a vote on gun control legislation, which will be a very difficult vote for some of those senators in competitive races? What is the point of forcing this vote right before an election year?

JENNINGS: Number one, I don't think all votes are taken in Congress for political reasons. I think sometimes policy is made because it needs to be made. Number two, I think every state is different, and how votes play from state to state will vary wildly. Number three, I think if you're a Republican senator, the president's views on it will matter a lot. If he blesses some sort of a package, then that, of course, makes it a lot easier for you to support it.

And finally, I don't really like to politicize these moments because I think good policy is good politics no matter what. But if you look through the raw lens of political strategy, if Donald Trump, a Republican president, somehow gets something done on this debate that has been stagnating for so many years, he can point to it, just like he did on criminal justice reform, and say, I could do this when Obama and other Democrats could not.

CHANG: Scott Jennings is a former campaign adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

JENNINGS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDERBALL SONG, "THE MOON, THE SKY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.