(WASHINGTON) — While the nation’s latest mass shooting at a private school in Nashville, Tennessee, seems sadly all too familiar — so, too, are the now routine responses from congressional lawmakers of both parties.
Despite shock over more schoolchildren being gunned down by a mass shooter, politicians in Washington quickly returned to arguments that have become standards in a deadlocked debate.
Even President Joe Biden seemed resigned, telling reporters Tuesday he “can’t do anything except plead with the Congress to act reasonably.”
“Don’t tell me we can’t do more together,” Biden added later, sounding more hopeful at an event in North Carolina. “I again call on Congress to pass the assault weapons ban, pass it. That should not be a partisan issue. It’s a commonsense issue. We have to act now.”
He added, “People say, ‘Why do I keep saying this if it not happening?’ Because I want you to know who isn’t doing it — who isn’t helping — to put pressure on them,” referring to the GOP.
Democrats like Biden once again called on what they refer to as “reasonable Republicans” to join them in passing more gun safety measures while Republicans once again slammed Democrats for trying to exploit the tragedy for political purposes.
Republicans, avoiding or dismissing questions about new restrictions on assault weapons, instead advocated for ramping up school security. More and more they cite “mental health” as the real problem and called for prayer, not gun bans.
“The first thing in any kind of tragedy is I pray. I pray for the victims. I pray for the families. I get really angry when people try to politicize it for their own personal agenda, especially when we don’t even know the facts,” House Majority Leader Rep. Steve Scalise said Tuesday.
“Let’s work to see if there’s something that we can do to help secure schools,” he continued. “It just seems like on the other side, all they want to do is take guns away from law-abiding citizens before they even know the facts.”
“We’ve talked about the need to improve mental health in this country, and that’s been a driver of a lot of these shootings as well,” Scalise added, hitting many GOP talking points.
Senate GOP leaders were asked Tuesday afternoon if Republicans “risk looking out of step” when a majority of the country supports reforming federal law around guns.
Sen. John Thune of South Dakota echoed Scalise, deeming any discussion of new gun safety legislation “premature.”
“Our thoughts are with the families, the victims with the community. We are grateful for the quick rapid response of law enforcement, and I think with respect to any discussion of legislation, it’s premature. There’s an ongoing investigation. And I think we need to let the facts come out,” he said.
When a reporter followed up by citing the number of mass shootings already this year, Thune deflected.
“When we get the facts in from this current investigation, we’ll have a better assessment of that — but I think right now, it’s just premature to talk about it. And I think there are a lot of grieving, hurting families in Nashville,” he said.
Democrats, at the same time, attacked Republicans, claiming they place more importance on keeping widespread access to assault weapons than on protecting kids at school.
“It’s an outrage that we can’t find a handful of Republicans willing to put people over extremism on the far right,” said Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., following Scalise’s press conference. “The fact that the talking points Republicans use today are exactly the same that they used in December of 2012. It’s alarming. It’s disappointing. It’s just sad. And that’s just who the Republican Party is today,” he added.
As of Tuesday afternoon, there were no known new bipartisan discussions on gun safety in Washington — and there’s little appetite for such a move as Republicans hold a majority in the House. In the Senate, Democrats would need at least 10 Republicans to join them in order to pass meaningful reform.
The last major action from Congress on gun reform was last June, just over a month after the deadly Uvalde School shooting that left 19 students and two teachers dead. While it was nowhere near what Democrats or Biden had hoped for — with provisions like universal background checks left out — the legislation’s passage broke a decades-long stalemate in Congress.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a key negotiator in last year’s bipartisan effort, told CNN on Monday that, in his view, any new congressional action is not in the picture.
“I would say we have gone about as far as we can go — unless somebody identifies some area we didn’t address, but the president just keeps coming back to the same old tired talking points,” Cornyn said. “So he’s not offering any new solutions or ideas. If he does, I think we should consider them, but so far, I haven’t heard anything.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called the response “devastating.”
“What do you say to those parents? What do you say to those families? You can’t say to them there’s nothing else that can be done. That’s not what their job is as legislators,” she said on ABC’s “GMA3.”
So why does Congress seem so unable to agree when Americans are demanding something be done?
Adzi Vokhiwa, federal affairs director at Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, blamed the power of the gun lobby — including major campaign contributions from the National Rifle Association — for keeping lawmakers from considering more gun safety measures popular with Americans, such as universal background checks.
“Unfortunately, we do seem to see Republicans kind of parroting the talking points of the gun lobby. ‘Guns are not to blame. People are to blame,’ but the evidence shows us that our country’s gun violence epidemic is so unique because we have so few restrictions on access to guns,” Vokhiwa told ABC News. “They’re common sense, but a lot of Republicans just continue to be beholden to the gun lobby, which doesn’t want to enact any sort of law that would impact their profit margin.”
Vokhiwa said because assault weapons have a particularly devastating effect in a mass shooting scenario, “that’s why so many people in the gun safety movement really coalesce around that — why the president coalesces around that — and there’s certainly more work to do in terms of getting support in Congress.”
But, she said, “There are other policy proposals that would be just as, if not more impactful, than an assault weapons ban that do have broad support — like background checks, like extreme risk laws, like safe storage. So, even if we’re not at the point where we can pass an assault weapons ban, there are a lot of other things that we could do that would save lives from gun violence.”
An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted in September 2019 found 89% of Americans support universal background checks and 86% support red flag laws. The poll found broad bipartisan support, as well; mandatory background checks and red flag laws won support from at least eight in 10 Republicans and conservatives, and as many or more of all others.
Another ABC News/Washington Post poll released in February found the public more divided over assault weapons with 47% supporting such a ban and 51% opposing it — reflecting a nine-point drop in support since 2019.
“Thoughts and prayers are far from our only option when it comes to addressing our gun violence crisis,” Vokhiwa added. “And I think the American people will hold Republicans accountable if they continue to refuse to act and if they value the gun lobby’s profit margin over the lives of American children in schools.”
Ultimately, she said, “As long as we have this divided Congress, it’ll be really hard to get something passed.”
One indication of how far apart lawmakers are is a bill introduced last month by Republican Rep. Barry Moore of Alabama to make the AR-15 assault-style weapon the “National Gun of America.”
Fellow House Republicans Rep. Lauren Boebert and George Santos were seen wearing AR-15 lapel pins.
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