Pelosi: Gun victims 'paying the price for our inaction'

House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiSinema, Fitzpatrick call for long-term extension of Violence Against Women Act Internal RNC poll shows Pelosi is more popular than Trump: report Indicted lawmaker angers GOP with decision to run for reelection MORE (D-Calif.) charged Thursday that Congress is complicit in the nation’s gun violence epidemic following the latest mass shooting.

Pelosi denounced Republicans' refusal to consider new limits on firearms a day after a gunman opened fire at a high school in Florida, killing 17 students and faculty while wounding more than a dozen others.

Characterizing the carnage as “useless, preventable violence,” the Democratic leader accused Republicans of cowing to the powerful gun lobby at the expense of public safety. 

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“It’s an assault on our whole country, and they are paying the price for our inaction,” Pelosi said in the Capitol. “Whose political survival, in this body, is more important than the survival of our children? … Whose political survival is more important than that?" 

“Nobody’s,” she said. “Nobody’s.”

Pelosi called on Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHow does the 25th Amendment work? Sinema, Fitzpatrick call for long-term extension of Violence Against Women Act GOP super PAC drops .5 million on Nevada ad campaign MORE (R-Wis.) and Republicans to take a variety of steps following the latest mass shooting, including considering legislation to expand background checks and empowering researchers to use federal dollars to examine the public health aspects of gun violence.

She also called for the creation of a special committee to address gun violence, noting that Republicans have used such committees in the past to examine Planned Parenthood and the 2012 terrorist attacks on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

“Any excuse will do,” Pelosi said of the GOP select committees, “except a serious reason like studying the gun-violence prevention issue.”

Ryan, appearing at the same podium just minutes after Pelosi, quickly shot down her requests, shifting the discussion to the topic of mental health.

“We want to make sure that if someone is in the mental health system, they don’t get a gun if they are not supposed to get a gun,” Ryan said. 

Ryan pointed to legislation passed in 2016 that was designed to bolster the nation’s mental health programs — a law cast by Republicans as the proper response to gun violence. Ryan suggested the legislation still needs time to ripen amid continued instances of mass shootings around the country.

“That legislation is now just taking place,” he maintained. “The question is: are those laws where they need to be, are they being implemented properly, are they being enforced correctly?”

Democrats have rejected the notion that gun violence is solely a mental health issue, arguing that guns are simply too easy to purchase because of lax federal laws. They’re also accusing Republicans of undermining the mental health system by underfunding it. 

“I’m sure that mental health factors in, but you can't deflect by saying, 'Oh, it's a mental health issue,’ and then turn around and work overtime trying to repeal the mental health programs that we have in place,” said Rep. Mike ThompsonCharles (Mike) Michael ThompsonMcCarthy joins push asking Trump for more wildfire aid in California California wildfires prompt deficit debate in Congress House Dems press Trump on bump stocks ban MORE (D-Calif.), a gun-owner and Vietnam veteran who heads the Democrats’ gun violence task force.

“There’s certainly going to be situations where, no matter what you do, something’s going to fall through the cracks,” he added. “But I believe Congress has a responsibility to do all that we can to minimize [the violence].”

The partisan political dance is a familiar one on Capitol Hill: after a seemingly endless string of mass shootings in recent years — including those at a Connecticut elementary school, an Orlando nightclub and an outdoor concert on the Las Vegas Strip — Democrats have called for tougher laws governing gun sales and equipment, while Republicans have rejected even an examination of new gun restrictions as a threat to the Second Amendment.

“We can’t even get a hearing on the background check bill,” Thompson said.

The latest mass shooting came Wednesday, when a lone gunman entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., with a semi-automatic assault rifle, killing 17 people and wounding 15 others. The suspect, arrested shortly afterward, was a 19-year-old former student who’d been expelled for behavioral issues. He had also been treated in the past for mental health issues, according to local authorities. 

Under federal law, those suffering severe mental health problems are prohibited from buying guns, but a patchwork of state laws means not every gun buyer undergoes a screening. It’s a loophole the Democrats have fought to close for years. 

“If everybody says they don't believe that criminals or the dangerously mentally ill should get guns — I certainly agree with that — but how do you prevent it from happening if you don't do background checks?” Thompson asked.

Yet the Democrats have not always been so eager to examine tougher gun laws. In the 111th Congress, when Pelosi held the Speaker’s gavel, several Democrats on the Judiciary Committee pushed leadership to hold hearings on background checks and firearm loopholes — entreaties that went ignored.

Pelosi on Thursday defended that inaction, saying it was largely a function of the politics of the Senate, where any gun reform legislation would have needed 60 votes to pass. 

“That was more the hurdle,” she said.

Pelosi noted that, in 2007, Congress had enacted legislation to boost the FBI’s background check database — a direct response to that year’s shooting rampage at Virginia Tech —  while touting the Democrats’ victory on mental health parity legislation, which was passed in 2010 as part of ObamaCare.

“That was one of the fundamentals of how do we prevent gun violence, was this mental-health piece,” Pelosi said, rejecting the notion that politics played a role.  

“I’d rather pass gun-safety legislation than win the election, because people die from this."