I asked 5 House Republicans what Congress could do about the Las Vegas shooting

After the mass shooting in Las Vegas over the weekend, one of the deadliest in modern American history, Republicans in Congress don’t seem to have much interest in turning to questions of gun control.

“I am sure there will be some debate on it, and then we will go down the road and something else will happen and it will get in the background again,” Rep. Roger Williams (R-TX) said. But if there will be a discussion, it seems like it’ll have to wait until after Republicans get their budget passed to set up their tax reform legislation.

There have been more than 1,500 mass shootings in the United States since the shooting in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, that left 20 schoolchildren dead. But there hasn’t been much action on Capitol Hill.

“I think if that guy had known that there were armed personnel with the types of weapons he had that would immediately shoot at him, that might have deterred him. I don’t know,” Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) suggested. “That did work in the Old West. You didn’t go around shooting people up too much, despite all the Hollywood movies, because if you did, someone was gonna shoot you. And that did work.”

Republicans had more excuses: The investigation into the Las Vegas shooting needs to be completed before there’s any talk of legislation, many suggested. Also the shooter in Las Vegas would have passed any background check anyway, they said. Others said there’s no middle ground between Republicans and Democrats on this issue.

Republicans have recently taken concrete steps on gun laws, rolling back an Obama-era rule making it easier for the FBI to flag those with severe mental illness while doing a background check on a firearm purchase. House Speaker Paul Ryan said Tuesday the rule “infringed” on people’s rights and pointed instead to a mental health reform package Congress passed in 2016, which codified mental health grants and educational programs.

We asked five House Republicans on Tuesday to talk about what response, if any, Congress could have to the Las Vegas shooting. Their answers revealed a lot about the priority of this issue in the party.

Rep. Roger Williams (R-TX): “I am sure there will be some debate on it, and then we will go down the road and something else will happen”
Tara Golshan

The president said today that there would be some talks on gun laws in the future. I was wondering how you see this conversation going on Capitol Hill.

Roger Williams

We always have talks on gun laws. If you don’t have anything to interview someone [about], you can always talk gun control. Right? So this brings it up. There is always a very divisive debate. It’s a very emotional issue. I’m a Second Amendment guy. I don’t believe in disarming the good guys. This guy would have had his guns no matter what. So I am sure there will be some debate on it, and then we will go down the road and something else will happen and it will get in the background again.

But I’m willing to talk about it. My main concern is praying for these families and those who lost their lives. I relate to a lot of what happened to me and my colleagues at the ballpark. I can’t imagine what they are going through and what’s in their head. That’s what we need to focus on right now.

Tara Golshan

What do you say to Americans that are concerned the US has the highest gun homicide rates among developed nations, and there have been more than 1,000 mass shootings since Sandy Hook? What do you say you guys are doing up here?

Roger Williams

Well, I don’t know if those are the numbers. But one is too much. One is too much in America. And I think we can continue to talk about [it].

We have two schools, and they are pretty plain. One says take guns away from people, and one says no, you can’t do that. Second Amendment, right to bear arms.

Tara Golshan

You don’t think there is a middle ground?

Roger Williams

No, I don’t think so.

Tara Golshan

So you don’t think there is something that can be done legislatively that could help prevent these —

Roger Williams

Well, I’d be willing to look at it, but for me, I’m not going to get away from the Second Amendment — the right to bear arms. But I’ll look at anything. What I am trying to say is right now having that debate is so divisive. It’s a divisive issue. It’s an emotional issue. You can either take them away — one side says — and the other side says no, you can’t do that, it’s in the Constitution, the right to bear arms. And it kind of stops right there.

It’s like a social issue. There’s not a lot of debate to it.

Tara Golshan

The House did pass the gun silencer provision out of committee last month, and it was supposed to maybe come up to the floor this week. Do these kinds of tragedies make it harder to push forward these kinds of gun policies?

Roger Williams

I think the gun silencer to me is a health issue. I think we can push this forward.

Tara Golshan

So the optics aren’t more difficult now?

Roger Williams

Well, if you go out into the streets, it’s kind of like we’re flood insurance right before the hurricanes. That’s not great timing, but we should vote on it.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX): “I just suggested more people being armed, and people know it. That did work in the Old West.”
Tara Golshan

I know the president today said there would be gun law conversations coming in the future. I was wondering whether you think there is anything Congress could do to mitigate these kinds of tragedies.

Joe Barton

It’s really tough because this guy had lots of guns and lots of ammunition and apparently just intentionally opened fire on a huge crowd of people with weapons he had modified to make them basically machine guns. The Second Amendment was so explicit for people to keep the right to bear arms, it’s very hard to restrict that right. And at least so far, this person didn’t appear to have family problems, financial problems, mental health problems. I think he was a former policeman? Is that right?

Tara Golshan

I’m not sure.

Joe Barton

So this guy doesn’t fit the mold. He’s not a terrorist. Something just snapped in him, and he decided to kill a bunch of people. I don’t know if you can protect society against that. I’m not going to vote to restrict for people who appear rational to purchase and own weapons. And this guy would have passed any background check. Your only hope is that someone near him figures out he’s going to do something bad [and] alerts law enforcement.

Tara Golshan

You have experienced this kind of horror firsthand.

Joe Barton

I sure have.

Tara Golshan

So what do you say to Americans who have now seen more than 1,500 mass shootings since Sandy Hook?

Joe Barton

As we found out at the shooting at the ballpark — the baseball practice — we had two security officers for Steve Scalise who fired back. That saved my life. Giving people more ability to arm themselves, that could be one deterrent.

Tara Golshan

So you think the crowd should had been armed in Las Vegas?

Joe Barton

Look, there’s no easy answer. I think if that guy had known there were armed personnel with the types of weapons he had that would immediately shoot at him, that might have deterred him. I don’t know. The guy was on the 32nd floor of a hotel.

Tara Golshan

The concept of people having machine guns at a concert is —

Joe Barton

I didn’t say I advocate that.

Tara Golshan

Okay, just trying to clarify.

Joe Barton

I think if the state legislature in Nevada — I don’t know what their state law on conceal[ed] carry and the right to carry weapons — but had they allowed it and had there been several thousand people in the crowd that were licensed under state law [to carry] and to use it to defend themselves, and he knew that, it might have made a difference. [Editor’s note: Nevada does, in fact, issue permits for concealed carry. No permit is required for open carry.] And it may not have. Again, this guy preplanned this. You don’t bring a dozen weapons — several of them semiautomatic modified to be automatic, with boxes of ammunition and more in your car — that’s not a spur-of-the-moment thing.

Tara Golshan

Is there a sense of urgency, with this being one of the deadliest mass shootings in modern history, to act in Congress now? Or is this the same circular, partisan —

Joe Barton

You got people that are strong Second Amendment supporters, like myself, and then you’ve got people that are strong gun control advocates.

Tara Golshan

Is there a middle ground in your view?

Joe Barton

I don’t know. What I just suggested — more people being armed, and people know it. That did work in the Old West. You didn’t go around shooting people up too much, despite all the Hollywood movies, because if you did, someone was gonna shoot you. And that did work.

Tara Golshan

Some of your colleagues have suggested the fact that he had a modifier to make his weapon automatic —

Joe Barton

You have to be licensed to have a machine gun. There are collectors and law enforcement — certain military personnel — but it’s pretty hard to get that license. He has some kind of device. He had modified it in a way, and certainly that mattered. You could outlaw those kinds of modifications.

Tara Golshan

Is that something you could support?

Joe Barton

I’d look at it.

Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ): “Why is Florida dramatically safer today and Illinois is not? Is it demographics?”
Tara Golshan

I know the president said he expects some kind of talks on gun laws to come up soon. I was wondering whether you think there is anything Congress could do to mitigate these kinds of tragedies.

David Schweikert

What I would love is actually something much more holistic, and you almost have to strip away from those of us in the political class, and say what’s happening in society. There is some interesting data. Arizona today is dramatically safer than it was 30 years ago from gun violence. Why is Florida dramatically safer today and Illinois is not? Is it demographics? Is it mental health services? Is it policing? I think we are being intellectually lazy when we jump on one part of societal violence.

We do have some great data when we look at big, complex, diverse states like Illinois and Florida — why they have they over the last 30 years become so different in their violent crime statistics. If you and I really said let’s back away from the politics, let’s back away from what we think we do know and don’t know and sort of blind ourselves and say what would you and I do as policymakers to make society safer, maybe it’s really worth our time to study and understand.

Tara Golshan

Is there any urgency toward this? If you do look on a macro level, it is striking that there have been more than 1,500 mass shootings since Sandy Hook. It is striking that the United States has more gun homicide rates than other developed nations.

David Schweikert

But what you have to do is take a look at the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, the numbers. It’s horrific what has happened. It’s unacceptable. Up until this last weekend, the numbers were actually just down since the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Is that just demographics? We’re getting older as a society. What happened? Why are some states so much safer than other states? Just as you started your question, you leaped into, “Isn’t this a crisis.” And I’m going to argue with you that if you actually want a solution, you got to look at the data set.

Tara Golshan

So when do you start this process?

David Schweikert

Yeah, but right now there are a lot of smart people writing books on this process. The demographer from Michigan who a year or two ago looked at all the data sets. A lot of this is happening at the thinking level.

Tara Golshan

So you think there is not enough data yet?

David Schweikert

No, there is. But now it requires those that specialize in societal policy to try to form it.

Tara Golshan

Okay. Do you get a sense of urgency that this is a conversation happening on Capitol Hill?

David Schweikert

Of course.

Tara Golshan

That legislation is forthcoming?

David Schweikert

You say legislation, but what’s the solution?

Tara Golshan

And there are formal conversations being had?

David Schweikert

You are trying to get an answer without defining the question.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK): “It’s evidently legal to buy one of these kits that you can turn semiautomatic weapons into automatic weapons. I was not aware of that.”
Tara Golshan

I know the president said today there would be some talks on gun laws coming up in the future. Do you think there is anything Congress could do to mitigate these kinds of tragedies?

Tom Cole

I think a lot depends on what we find out in this investigation. I think there is some concern that it’s evidently legal to buy one of these kits that you can turn semiautomatic weapons into automatic weapons. I was not aware of that. So I think there is a lot of concern. That, to me could be one of the areas. But the sad thing is, most of the law changes that we have talked about wouldn’t have affected this guy at all. He would have made it through any list. He acquired his weapons legally. He didn’t have any background problems we are aware of at this point, although, again, the investigation is not clear. So it looks to me that these kits that turn these things into automatic weapons is a place you could really get some bipartisan support.

Tara Golshan

Is there any sense of urgency? There have been more than 1,500 mass shootings since Sandy Hook.

Tom Cole

Well, you have to remember violent gun deaths have been down 50 percent since 1995. So, yes, there is a sense of wanting to do something. But I think there is also a concern that we not get stampeded into doing the wrong thing and end up punishing people. I have a lot of constituents that own literally dozens of weapons — they are collectors, or they like different kinds of guns for different purposes — and they wouldn’t be a threat to anybody.

A lot depends on whether Democrats want to work on something constructively or do they — I think they have strong beliefs, and there are a lot of areas we differ. But this case it seems, it appears at this point, that most of the things we’ve proposed would have stopped him anyway, other than the thing about the automatic weapon. So let’s see what the investigation tells us before we legislate.

Tara Golshan

So when is the right time for this? There is this investigation on this specific issue, but there have been so many cases.

Tom Cole

People have difference. I have a district that has high gun ownership. I remember after Sandy Hook, I went to the schools and most of the schools were worried — they’re hunters — they were more worried about things that would cost them access to weapons for legitimate sporting and hunting. So that’s something I consider when I think about this.

Tara Golshan

In terms of when to act?

Tom Cole

No. Again, look. You can put legislation down any time. The question is when does it have the critical mass of support?

Tara Golshan

You don’t think it does right now?

Tom Cole

Some things might. Some things I just mentioned. But most of the things I hear, no. They wouldn’t in my district — and that’s whose opinion I vote. I’m sure they’re reflecting the opinion in their area as well.

Tara Golshan

So you don’t see any major legislation around this coming up?

Tom Cole

No, I think some things are slowing down.

Tara Golshan

Sorry, what’s slowing down?

Tom Cole

Some things that the NRA favors, I think a lot of people will take a second look at just to make sure. But I think a lot will depend on what the investigation actually reveals.

Tara Golshan

Like, for example, the gun silence provision.

Tom Cole

I don’t know that the gun silencer matters in this instance. I’m trying to find this out myself, and I have got my staff looking at it. I’m not sure a silencer affects an automatic weapon. In matter of fact, the things I have seen online suggest that they don’t make a difference. But I think we are going to pull back for a while and wait and see.

Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY): “We just haven’t gotten to that critical mass” to act
Tara Golshan

The president said today that there would be some talks on gun laws.

Tom Reed

Oh. When and where did he say that?

Tara Golshan

It was in the pool report this morning.

Tom Reed

Okay.

Tara Golshan

Do you foresee that happening on the Hill, and do you think there is anything Congress could do to mitigate these tragedies?

Tom Reed

Oh, I think there is a lot that Congress can do in order to mitigate these tragedies, but it’s not in the area of gun control. The areas that bring people together are the areas of mental health, domestic terrorism, and foreign terrorism. I think if you focus on those issues that are the issues of the individual, there will be people on both sides that would sincerely want to take that issue on. But it’s harder — those issues are harder than gun control.

Tara Golshan

In February, Congress blocked the Obama-era provision that [the] Social Security [Administration] didn’t have to report to the FBI if —

Tom Reed

You’re talking about the folks that were losing their gun rights —

Tara Golshan

Clearly it is a very contentious issue, it’s a very partisan one, so how do you work around that on mental health?

Tom Reed

How do you do that? You try to find members that are willing to really take on these harder issues and who want to do it. But we just haven’t gotten to that critical mass, and until the powers that be who want to take on the easier path of taking on the political issues of gun control and try and gin up that issue as the No. 1 problem — I just don’t see that. Until they change the tune and say we are going to deal with mental health, we are going to do something with domestic terrorism, we are going to do something with foreign terrorism, then maybe you will have a change in the culture of DC to get something done.

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