Partisan divide on guns just grows larger with each tragedy
The partisan divide over guns couldn’t be more stark even after the nation’s most recent mass shootings — including the killings of 19 children at a Texas elementary school.
Rather than uniting the country behind a shared vision for how to keep the public safe, the massacres have deepened the chasm between congressional lawmakers when it comes to guns, their function and their place in American culture.
Increasingly, Democrats view the Second Amendment as a malleable doctrine, subject to limits for the sake of protecting the public from violent outbursts they consider preventable. Their solution to mass shootings such as the one in Uvalde, Texas, hinges on a simple premise: fewer guns in fewer hands.
“Yeah, there’s mental health issues [here], but there’s mental health issues in every country,” Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told reporters Thursday on Capitol Hill, where the panel had gathered for a special markup of gun reform legislation.
“There’s only one difference, and that is that this country is awash in guns,” he said.
Republicans, by contrast, are more and more likely to view gun rights as sacrosanct and any effort to restrict them as unconstitutional. Their answer to the latest massacre is not fewer guns but more of them, particularly in schools.
“If you hold schools out as gun-free zones, as soft targets, you make those school shootings more likely,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said during the Judiciary markup.
Between the two positions, there’s been little room for compromise. And the resulting impasse has meant that thousands of mass shootings have taken place in recent years with virtually no legislative response from Congress. Some barely get a mention, let alone a bill.
It wasn’t always that way.
In 1994, following a series of mass shootings, Congress united to approve a ban on a number of semi-automatic “assault” rifles as well as ammunition magazines deemed to be unnecessarily “high capacity.” The vote in the House was 235 to 195, with 64 Democrats voting against the package and 46 Republicans crossing the aisle to support it. It became law, but the bans expired in 2004.
Eight years later, after the massacre at an elementary school in Connecticut, then-Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) urged his fellow Republicans to “have a discussion about guns,” telling them to be “circumspect” in those talks and warning that “it’s not helpful” for lawmakers to call for arming teachers as a way to prevent mass shootings.
Following the Uvalde shooting, Republicans are sounding a very different tone, calling explicitly for more armed security guards to protect the country’s schools. Some are hoping to arm teachers as well.
“The Democrats have taken away the ability of a good guy to have a gun in a school to stop bad guys,” Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) said Thursday.
“If more guns were the answer, we’d be the safest country in the world,” Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) countered.
The stalemate has infuriated gun reform advocates, who are all but accusing Republicans of being complicit in murder for their rejection of tougher gun laws.
“Nineteen children are dead,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.). “And so to my Republican colleagues I ask, ‘Who are you here for? Are you here for our kids? Or are you here for the killers?’”
Such accusations drew a spirited response from Republicans, who countered that the Democrats’ legislative prescriptions for gun violence not only are unconstitutional but would also prove ineffective.
“We care deeply about what’s happening in our schools,” said Buck. “We disagree that these shallow, inconsequential bills will have an impact on that.”
Buck went on to denounce Democrats for their position on a host of issues unrelated to gun violence, accusing them of threatening national security for their immigration policies and promoting “a culture of death” for their support of abortion rights.
Those comments set off Cicilline, who accused Republicans of wanting to change the subject to avoid responsibility for endemic gun violence.
“Do you think a grieving mother or father who’s watching you wants to hear you talk about abortion and border security while we’re trying to respond to the gun violence that led to the death of their child?” he said.
The debate in Thursday’s markup was reflective of the debate at large: full of acrimony and finger-pointing that the other party is to blame for the recent rash of mass shootings, not only in Uvalde but also in Buffalo, N.Y., and Tulsa, Okla.
Congress’s response to those tragedies marks a sharp contrast from the responses of other governments around the globe forced to reckon with horrific shooting massacres in recent decades. Following similar events in Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand, for instance, those governments united behind aggressive efforts to restrict gun sales and ownership — limits that gun reformers frequently point to as the reason for a drop in shootings in those countries afterward.
“We’re the only society on Earth where parents have to compare their DNA to the bodies of their children because they’re unrecognizable,” said Nadler.
Some experts have postulated that the absence of a unified response from Congress following mass shootings is at least a contributing factor to the discrepancy between the United States and other developed nations when it comes to curbing them.
“Part of that reason must be cultural, environmental, what the particular politics and environment of a particular place is,” said Adam Winkler, a constitutional law expert at the UCLA School of Law. “It may be that a culture that all comes together to support gun safety regulation in the wake of a mass shooting becomes a nation where mass shootings are less likely to happen.”
Gun reform advocates are hoping this year will be different.
A bipartisan group of Senate negotiators is meeting regularly in an effort to hash out some compromise on anti-gun violence legislation that can win the support of 10 GOP senators — enough to defeat a Republican filibuster.
House Democrats are racing to stage votes on a series of gun reform bills next week, including the package marked up by the Judiciary Committee on Thursday. And President Biden this week waded into the debate, imploring Congress to pass a swath of aggressive new restrictions on firearms, including a ban on “assault” rifles.
Still, there are ominous signs that the thorny politics surrounding gun reform means the bills face long odds of reaching his desk, particularly in a tough election year when Democrats are expected to lose control of the House.
Some Democrats are wary of voting for an assault weapons ban, for instance, that might hurt their chances at the polls in November. In the face of that reluctance, Democratic leaders have promised a hearing on the bill but not a vote.
Meanwhile, for Republicans willing to buck the party’s orthodoxy on gun issues, the repercussions are often severe. Rep. Chris Jacobs (R-N.Y.) discovered that reality in recent weeks after he endorsed an assault weapons ban and limits on ammunition magazines following the May 10 shooting massacre at a grocery store in Buffalo.
Faced with a backlash from within his own party, Jacobs dropped out of the race for reelection.
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