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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Firearm and body armor restrictions, mental health screenings urged by lawmakers in reaction to latest shooting tragedy

Law enforcement personnel walk outside Uvalde High School after shooting a was reported earlier in the day at Robb Elementary School, Tuesday, May 24, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas.  (William Luther)

WASHINGTON – Opponents of restricting firearms often argue that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” a line famously uttered by the chief executive of the National Rifle Association after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school a decade ago.

In mass shootings at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday and a Buffalo, New York, supermarket just 10 days earlier, however, police and a security guard couldn’t stop the shooters who carried semiautomatic, assault-style rifles .

The 18-year-old man who allegedly killed 10 Black people in a white supremacist rampage in Buffalo on May 14 wrote in an online manifesto that he would need body armor to carry out the massacre. According to the city’s police commissioner, at least one shot fired by the store’s security guard struck the shooter but “had no effect” before he shot and killed the guard, a retired police officer.

After initially saying the shooter in Uvalde, also 18, was wearing body armor when he killed 19 children and two adults, Texas authorities told lawmakers Wednesday he was wearing a tactical vest but it did not have hardened armor plates inside, the Associated Press reported. The Texas shooter was shot dead by a Border Patrol team, according to state law enforcement officials.

Despite bipartisan expressions of outrage and grief in Congress over the shootings, federal gun safety legislation appears doomed in the face of opposition from Republicans who argue the Constitution guarantees largely unrestricted access to firearms, including semiautomatic rifles designed for killing people in war. Regulating the sale of the kind of tactical gear worn by the two 18-year-old men may face better odds, but on Wednesday, senators said they were not actively pursuing such legislation.

“I’m not going to talk about specific gun control measures until we get into that discussion,” Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said at the Capitol.

When asked if he was open to federal regulations on body armor, Crapo said, “I’ll tell you what I’m open to, and I’ve been open to this all the time, and that is addressing the causes of the violence. I think mental health is the biggest cause.”

Crapo is working with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., on legislation to shore up the nation’s mental health care system, an issue with bipartisan support.

But Democrats like Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., object to the idea that psychological problems alone explain the prevalence of mass shootings in the United States.

“I want to make this plain: The majority of people with mental illness do not commit violence against others,” Murray said Wednesday on the Senate floor. “Treating gun violence as a mental health issue, rather than a gun issue, will never get us to the root cause of these horrific shootings.

“If we want to get at the heart of really stopping gun violence, I beg my colleagues to pull their heads out of the sand and finally start talking about what can really address this crisis of gun violence: common-sense gun safety legislation.”

After Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer moved Tuesday to clear the way for a vote on legislation to require stricter background checks for gun purchases, on Wednesday the New York Democrat pulled back and said he would try to find a compromise that could draw the support of at least 10 Republicans needed to avoid a filibuster. Most GOP senators, however, avoided talking about any gun safety measures.

“Today is not a good day,” Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said when asked about a legislative response to the shooting. “I don’t want to do any interviews on guns or body armor or anything else today.”

Some more moderate Senate Republicans indicated they are open to modest gun safety measures, including enhanced background checks and “red flag” laws that let police temporarily take guns away from people determined to be a threat to themselves or others.

“Right now, what we’re looking at are background check updates and red flag laws, but haven’t seen anything on body armor,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah. “I’m open to lots of things, so I’ll take a look at it.”

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she hadn’t considered the body armor issue and was focused on red flag laws and cracking down on “straw purchasers” who help illegal gun buyers avoid background checks.

Schumer, then the Senate minority leader, introduced a bill in 2019 that would have required civilians to get permission from the FBI before buying “advanced” body armor or tactical law enforcement gear. That legislation never got to the Senate floor, and several Democratic senators said Wednesday they were not aware of it.

Sen. Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he wasn’t familiar with proposed body armor regulations but thought the idea was worth exploring.

After Durbin spoke, Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington added, “If he doesn’t know, it sounds like it didn’t get a lot of airing as an issue, thus far anyway.”

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said he was “interested in taking a look at anything that could be helpful,” including body armor regulations. Montana’s other senator, Republican Steve Daines, dismissed that idea, saying, “That’s not going to solve the problem.”

Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who has been a leading gun safety advocate since the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting in his home state, said he hadn’t considered restricting body armor purchases and cautioned against crafting legislation based on any single attack.

“I don’t think we should fall into the trap of writing laws that only address the last mass shooting,” Murphy said. “We need to look at the breadth of threats that are presented in the country, not just the thing that’s in the news today.”

Northwest Republicans in the House, which has been out of session since before the Texas massacre, also emphasized the role of mental health in mass shootings. Kyle VonEnde, a spokesman for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, said the Spokane lawmaker is “open to having bipartisan conversations with her colleagues about the body armor used in recent tragedies,” calling it “a new and troubling trend that warrants keeping all options on the table.”

“Cathy believes we have a mental health crisis in America and is concerned about the increasing amount of violence in our schools,” VonEnde said in an email, adding that McMorris Rodgers has supported banning “bump stocks,” an accessory that lets semiautomatic weapons fire at a higher rate, as well as legislation to improve background checks and school security.

Rep. Russ Fulcher, a Republican whose district includes North Idaho, called the Texas shooting “a shocking tragedy” and cited his support for improving mental health services in schools.

“After such events, our natural response is to look for policy solutions,” Fulcher said in a statement. “While there are legislative concepts worthy of discussion, I do not believe adding restrictions to the constitutionally protected rights of law-abiding citizens is the appropriate answer.”

Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican who represents Central Washington, called the shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde “nothing short of horrific” and condemned “the racist, abhorrent actions” of the Buffalo shooter, while saying he favors states regulating guns and body armor instead of the federal government.

“We do not have the full story and an investigation into the Uvalde shooting is still ongoing, yet many have already politicized these events in their push for federal gun legislation,” he said in a statement. “I strongly support our constitutional right to keep and bear arms, and I will continue to defend that right on behalf of central Washington.”

Senators are scheduled to leave Washington on Thursday for a weeklong recess after Memorial Day, with potential votes on gun safety measures expected in early June.