South Dakota Rep. Dusty Johnson is skeptical that gun legislation will have a tangible impact on curbing mass shootings in America.

“The way that we should talk about gun rights in this country needs to be far more thoughtful and reasonable than, frankly, most people on either side of the aisle are really willing to engage in,” Johnson told CBS News chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett on the “The Takeout” this week. Johnson chairs the Republican Main Street Caucus, a group of over 70 conservative members of Congress whose goal is to pass “pragmatic, common sense” legislation.

President Joe Biden renewed his call for an assault weapons ban after the mass shooting at a private Christian elementary school in Nashville this week that left three children and three staff members dead. According to Nashville police, the shooter was armed with two assault-type weapons and a handgun.

“I’m not in favor of banning assault weapons,” Johnson told Garrett. “I think most members of Congress probably understand that the kind of legislative proposals that are being talked about are not actually going to have a substantial impact on saving the kinds of American lives that we need to save.”

Johnson argued that the rights of the many should not be impacted by the wrongs of the few. There are over 24 million assault-style rifles in circulation in the United States, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearm industry trade association.

Those “engaged in evil doing in a given year is (in the) thousandths of a percent,” Johnson said. “And I think there are lots of very legitimate, law-abiding American citizens that would ask, why are the rights of the 99.999875(%) or whatever it is dismantled because of evildoers?”

He dismissed last year’s passage of last year’s gun control law, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, arguing that it has had no significant impact on the occurrence of  mass shootings.  

“Last year, when folks largely on one side of the aisle passed some legislation dealing with gun safety, you know, we were told that this was going to be a big advance and that this was, you know, anybody who wasn’t for this was for continuing the carnage, and this is how we stop the carnage,” Johnson said. “Nobody really believes that that legislation has stopped these sort of acts of evil.”

Like many Republicans, Johnson believes that in order to have substantive change, the focus should not be on imposing stricter laws on guns, but on “a major and transformative investment in behavioral health.”

Instead of focusing on “three tragic deaths there, 10 tragic deaths there, 20 tragic deaths there” with mass shootings, Johnson pivoted to a discussion of mental health, suicide and substance abuse.

“The carnage is unfortunately a lot bigger than what we saw in Nashville,” Johnson said. “The carnage is 100,000 people who die of drug overdose deaths every single year, and 100,000 people who die from suicide every single year. We are not a healthy nation….I think until we talk about why are 100,000 people killing themselves every year, we’re going to continue to also talk about them killing others.”

Johnson also addressed another topic of contention between Democrats and Republicans: the debt ceiling.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has called for negotiations with Mr. Biden on spending cuts in exchange for raising Treasury’s borrowing ceiling. The president says this is a non-starter and has urged Republicans in Congress to pass a clean debt ceiling, that is, an increase without any conditions attached.

Earlier this week, McCarthy sent a letter to the president, accusing him of “putting an already fragile economy in jeopardy” by refusing to negotiate and laying out a series of proposals he said would induce economic growth.

Mr. Biden responded, again calling on Congress to pass a debt limit without conditions, and to separate U.S. borrowing authority from budget talks. The president released his proposed budget in March and has said that he would need to see the Republicans’ budget proposal before he would be willing to sit down with McCarthy.

“The Republicans passing a budget isn’t going to help this negotiation ripen,” Johnson said. “The only thing that will make this thing ripen is getting two guys together at a table.” 

“We’re in a very bad spot as a country right now,” he continued. “The unwillingness for the president to even come to the table, I think, has cost us a lot of pretty important time.” He noted that when Congress gets back from its Easter recess, it could be as little as six weeks before the country is in danger of credit default.

Johnson also weighed in on the 2024 presidential race and said he hasn’t decided which candidate he’d support for the GOP nomination.

“Right now we’re in a primary. You’ve got to let these things play out,” Johnson said. “I am going to look at every presidential candidate. I wouldn’t provide any undue deference to Donald Trump. I want to hear what Tim Scotts got to say. I want to hear what Ron DeSantis going to say. I want to hear what Nikki Haley’s got to say. There are some in my party who want a coronation of the former president. I think that’s a massive mistake.”

Asked whether former President Trump’s actions leading up to or on Jan. 6 would disqualify him from being president again, Johnson would not answer directly, but acknowledged that Mr. Trump made “grievous mistakes” that day and “absolutely should have” done a lot more to quell the unrest.  

“I think there was a leadership opportunity there. He has a unique ability to talk to the folks who were gathered,” Johnson said.

Executive producer: Arden Farhi

Producers: Jamie Benson, Jacob Rosen, Sara Cook and Eleanor Watson

CBSN Production: Eric Soussanin 
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