AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The mass shooting in Orlando has reignited the Capitol Hill debate on guns. No major gun-control legislation has cleared Congress since the 1994 assault weapons ban, and it's expired. But the attack in Orlando has led to new calls to pass stronger gun restrictions.
With us now to talk about it is NPR's congressional correspondent Ailsa Chang. And Ailsa, what exactly are lawmakers calling for right now?
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Well, Senate Democrats are pushing a bill that would allow the Justice Department to stop anyone from buying a gun if that person is on the terror watch list or if the FBI reasonably believes that the gun would be used to commit terrorism. Here's how California Democrat Dianne Feinstein justified the bill on a conference call today.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Between February of '04 and December of '15 on 2,265 occasions known or suspected terrorists past a background check to buy a gun. That's fact.
CHANG: But this bill to stop people on the list from buying guns - this is the same bill the Senate voted on right after the shootings in San Bernardino last year, and it failed with almost every Republican voting against it.
CORNISH: Looking closer at the legislation, how would it have prevented what happened in Orlando?
CHANG: Well, the argument is very theoretical. But law enforcement officials say Omar Mateen was questioned twice by the FBI in 2013 and 2014. And he was temporarily placed on the terror watch list. Now, he was removed from the list well before his two recent gun purchases.
But here's what Democrats are saying. Although it's theoretical, maybe under the spill, if the Justice Department still thought at the time there was a reasonable chance Mateen would have used the guns in a terrorist attack, maybe he could've been stopped under this legislation from buying those guns.
CORNISH: Republicans have come out against this bill. What have they been saying about it?
CHANG: Well, the main argument for them is it's not clear how people are added to the terror watch list. So the argument goes if someone is mistakenly added to the list or added on the basis of very little evidence, that person's Second Amendment rights could be easily violated.
Instead, something Republicans want to focus on is mental health. They are pushing legislation that would improve mental health services that would give law enforcement more resources to identify people with mental health problems. And there is bipartisan support for this kind of bill, but Democrats don't want to do that instead of gun control. What they say is both can be done.
CORNISH: Now, Ailsa, you have been reporting on the Hill for a while now. You've seen how hard it is for gun-control measures of any kind to pass Congress. You were there for the Newtown, Conn., shootings and - just to remind people - 26 people were killed then including 20 children. So these Democrats, why do they think anything is different now?
CHANG: It's not clear that anything is. I mean, I remember 2013. It was right after Newtown, and I remember watching parents whose children had been killed at Sandy Hook walking the hallways here. They were lobbying Congress furiously. I mean, who would have denied a meeting with these parents? And there was a sense among Democrats that something had shifted.
Even though 20 years had passed since major gun-control legislation hit the floor, something had shifted after Newtown. But apparently not enough. All the proposals failed that year - a bill to expand background checks, to gun shows and Internet sales - that failed. A ban on assault weapons failed. Even a handful of Democrats had voted those proposal down.
And now this year - it's an election year which makes it even harder to get any difficult legislation passed.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Ailsa Chang on Capitol Hill. Ailsa, thank you.
CHANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.