WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer swiftly set in motion a pair of firearms background-check bills Wednesday in response to the school massacre in Texas. But the Democrat acknowledged Congress’ unyielding rejection of previous legislation to curb the national epidemic of gun violence.
Schumer implored his Republican colleagues to cast aside the powerful gun lobby and reach across the aisle for even a modest compromise bill. But no votes are being scheduled.
“Please, please, please damnit - put yourselves in the shoes of these parents just for once,” Schumer said as he opened the Senate.
He threw up his hands at the idea of what might seem an inevitable outcome: “If the slaughter of schoolchildren can’t convince Republicans to buck the NRA, what can we do?”
The killing of at least 19 children plus a teacher at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, has laid bare the political reality that the U.S. Congress has proven unwilling or unable to pass substantial federal legislation to curb gun violence in America.
In many ways, the end of any gun violence legislation in Congress was signaled a decade ago when the Senate failed to approve a firearms background check bill after twenty 6- and 7-year-olds were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Despite the outpouring of grief Wednesday after the starkly similar Texas massacre, it’s not at all clear there will be any different outcome.
“We are accepting this as the new normal,” lamented Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., on “CBS Mornings.” “It’s our choice.”
While President Joe Biden said “we have to act,” substantial gun violence legislation has been blocked by Republicans, often with a handful of conservative Democrats.
Despite mounting mass shootings in communities nationwide — two in the past two weeks alone, including Tuesday in Texas and the racist killing of Black shoppers at a Buffalo, New York, market 10 days earlier — lawmakers have been unwilling to set aside their differences and buck the gun lobby to work out any compromise.
Even the targeting of their own failed to move Congress to act. Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was shot in the head at a Saturday morning event outside a Tucson grocery store in 2011, and several Republican lawmakers on a congressional baseball team were shot years later during morning practice.
“The conclusion is the same,” said Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. “I’m not seeing any of my Republican colleagues come forward right now and say, ‘Here’s a plan to stop the carnage.’ So this is just normal now, which is ridiculous.”
It’s “nuts to do nothing about this,” Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., Giffords’ husband, said Wednesday using an expletive.
Pleading with his colleagues for a compromise, Murphy said he was reaching out to the two Texas Republican senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, and had called fellow Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin who authored the bill that failed after Sandy Hook.
“When you have babies, little children, innocent as can be, oh God,” Manchin told reporters late Tuesday, noting he had three school-age grandchildren. “It just makes no sense at all why we can’t do common sense — common sense things — and try to prevent some of this from happening.”
In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, compromise legislation, written by Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, was backed by a majority of senators. But it fell to a filibuster — blocked by most Republicans and a handful of Democrats, unable to to overcome the 60-vote threshold needed to advance.
The same bill flamed out again in 2016, after a mass shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
“My interest in doing something to improve and expand our background check system remains,” Toomey told reporters Wednesday. He said he had been in contact with Murphy.
But Toomey was an outlier. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has declined to publicly comment on potential legislation, and few other Republicans added their voices to the mix.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins said she too had spoken to Murphy and Congress should focus on “what some states have done red or yellow flag laws” — which are designed to keep firearms away from people who could harm themselves or others.
One known deal-maker, Democratic Sen. Krysten Sinema of Arizona, told reporters Wednesday she’ll start having conversations with senators on “red flag” laws or others.
“People at home all across America are just, they’re scared. They want us to do something,” Sinema said.
A modest effort to strengthen the federal background check system for gun purchases did make it into law in 2018a. The “Fix NICS” measure, which provided money for states to comply with the existing National Instant Criminal Background Check system and penalize federal agencies that don’t.
Former President Donald Trump vowed action in 2019, after back-to-back mass shootings rocked the nation when a gunman opened fire at a shopping center in El Paso and another targeted a popular nightlife spot in Ohio, killing dozens. In 2018 his administration had banned bump stocks, the attachments that allow semi-automatic weapons to fire like machine guns and were used during the October 2017 shooting massacre in Las Vegas.
But Trump eventually backed away from the proposals, pressured both times by the National Rifle Association and other groups.
Biden, whose party has slim control of Congress, has failed to push gun violence bills past what is now primarily Republican opposition in the Senate.
Last year, the House passed two bills to expand background checks on firearms purchases. One would have closed a loophole for private and online sales. The other would have extended the background check review period, a response to the church shooting of Black people by a white man in South Carolina.
Schumer immediately set them in motion for votes after the Texas tragedy. Both had languished in the 50-50 Senate where Democrats have only a narrow majority because of Vice President Kamala Harris’ ability to cast a tie-breaking vote but need at least 10 Republicans to overcome a filibuster.
The stalemate has renewed calls to do away with Senate filibuster rules for legislation, lowering the threshold to a 51-vote majority for passage.
“Why do you go through all the hassle of getting this job, of putting yourself in a position of authority if your answer is that as the slaughter increases, as our kids run for their lives, we do nothing?” Murphy said in a fiery speech late Tuesday as news spread of the Texas massacre.
Cornyn was en route Wednesday to Uvalde. Cruz issued a statement calling it “a dark day. We’re all completely sickened and heartbroken.”
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