The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Wednesday claimed 17 victims, making it one of the deadliest school shootings in American history. One of the teenage survivors of the shooting pleaded to lawmakers on CNN, “We are children. You guys are, like, the adults. Take action, work together, come over your politics, and get something done.”
But on Capitol Hill Thursday, there was no urgency to deal with the issue of gun violence.
The Senate, instead, was wrapped up in an immigration debate. But even beyond Thursday’s votes, there seemed to be no plan to take up any kind of legislation to stop future mass shootings like the one at the Florida high school.
Republicans and Democrats alike pointed to stalled bills. House Speaker Paul Ryan noted that the House recently passed the Fix NICS Act, a bill meant to strengthen the federal background check system, introduced after the Sutherland Springs, Texas, shooting last year.
“That bill, with others, is sitting over in the United States Senate,” Ryan said.
Predictably, Ryan and other Republican leaders pointed to existing laws that attempt to prevent mentally ill people from “slipping” through the cracks and being able to purchase guns. Many repeated the line that the issue of gun control shouldn’t be politicized. But at least one Republican leader said Congress needed to do more than offer thoughts and prayers to victims and family members.
“We need to not only think about and pray for the families and teachers and support staff affected by this terrible act, I think we need to conduct hearings and talk to the experts and find out what kind of tools might be available to us,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), who sponsored the Senate version of the background check bill — which hasn’t seen any movement in the Senate despite Cornyn’s high-ranking leadership position.
“I personally am unwilling to face another family member who’s lost a loved one as a result of these mass shootings that could be prevented by making sure the background check system works as Congress intended,” he added.
Cornyn has frustrated Senate Democrats, who say GOP leaders like him are the very reason Congress has not been able to act to prevent another shooting like Parkland or Sutherland Springs.
“It’s certainly been the Republican leadership that do not want their members having to vote on this, because I think they recognize if there’s a vote on it, it’s going to pass,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD).
I asked five senators on Thursday what Congress could do to prevent another mass school shooting like the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Their answers revealed a divide among the parties on how to act.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO): “It appears that the gun laws that you would assume should be in place were in place and complied with”
I wanted to ask you about gun control legislation in the wake of the Florida shooting and if you think there’s anything Congress can do to tighten gun laws.
I don’t think we would know yet; it appears that the gun laws that you would assume should be in place were in place and complied with. Clearly, there’s a lack of people sharing information that they have about unstable individuals, and I don’t know what you do about that, whether it’s terrorists or just people intent on doing bad things. But you can’t continue to let people say they’re going to do bad things and not tell anybody.
So I don’t know. I don’t know enough about it yet to know if there’s a proper response or not.
What about the bipartisan bill to tighten the background check system? It seemed like there is some agreement on that among Democrats and Republicans.
I haven’t had time … [trails off].
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK): “When it comes to mental health, that’s bigger, broader, and is there, of course, a role for Congress in ensuring where we’re doing right by resourcing”
I wanted to ask you if you think there’s anything Congress can do to stop gun violence.
There is a role for Congress, I think we recognize that, but I think we also know that some of the proposals that Sen. [Susan] Collins outlined have been out there; they’re on the table, they’re up for discussion. But I think we all know that there is no one single initiative that is going to be able to stop what happened in Florida or what has happened in — unfortunately — far too many other areas, where, again, you think there’s a level of safety and security and there’s not.
What do you think the role of Congress is here?
Well, I just suggested that there are initiatives that have been outlined — some I support, some that I don’t — but certainly when it comes to mental health, that’s bigger, broader, and is there, of course, a role for Congress in ensuring where we’re doing right by resourcing.
I know that in Alaska, we have a very serious deficiency when it comes to mental health providers in any space. So we, the Congress, clearly have a role in resourcing appropriately, making sure from an enforcement perspective we have the provisions in place that we need.
Why do you think Congress is not acting urgently on this issue?
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO): “We really need conservatives to speak out”
Senator, what do you think Congress can do to prevent further attacks like the Florida shooting?
Well, there’s a lot of gun safety measures that we’ve struggled with that I’ve supported. There’s the strengthening of background checks, there’s the gun show loophole, there’s the “no fly, no buy.” That’s a good to-do list.
I mean, I thought we were going to fall off the table and do bump stocks right after Las Vegas, and then the [National Rifle Association] did a, “Oh, never mind, we didn’t mean it,” and all their minions fell in line.
Do you think the NRA was the biggest reason the bump stock ban failed in the Senate?
Yes. Yes. Well, you’re talking to somebody who gets an F from the NRA.
What, beyond the NRA, is the biggest impediment to any gun control legislation happening?
I think that there has been some kind of trance that has overcome way too many of my colleagues, that reasonable gun safety is the same thing as somehow limiting the Second Amendment. They’re not the same thing. Nobody wants to harm the Second Amendment. I grew up in a rural community. My father had a bunch of shotguns and loved to hunt; that’s the culture I was brought up in. Nobody wants to do anything to impair people’s right to own guns, but there are reasonable gun safety measures that this country is clamoring for. And that’s what we should be doing.
I don’t know if you saw the news today, but there were a number of students at the Florida high school making personal pleas to President Trump, and also members of Congress …
I hope they come up here. I hope they come up here; the DREAMers have set a good example. Now, hopefully we get success on the DREAMers today, so I don’t want to encourage them to do what the DREAMers have done if we don’t get success on the DREAMers. [Editor’s note: Every Senate proposal on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program voted on so far on Thursday failed.]
But I hope that the families that have been impacted by this, particularly those who see themselves as Republicans, see themselves as conservative in terms of their viewpoints … we really need conservatives to speak out about the commonsense idea that you do not have to interfere with gun ownership merely by doing gun safety.
Have you had any personal conversations with your Republican colleagues on this issue?
Over the years, I have; they haven’t been successful.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD): “If people want to vote no, they’ll vote no, but let’s just have a vote on it”
In your opinion, is there anything Congress can get done on gun control legislation?
I’m outraged. You’ve got to do more than say that our prayers are with the victims and their families — and they are — but you need to have action. The American people expect action. There’s no excuse why the majority leader hasn’t brought up for a vote the bump stock issues or assault weapons or background checks or large-capacity magazines. All those issues, there’s just no excuse why we haven’t had votes on the floor of the Congress.
Look, if people want to vote no, they’ll vote no, but let’s just have a vote on it. I’ve sponsored and co-sponsored all these bills. What I think the American people want is action, and we have a responsibility to have votes on these issues.
Where do you see the biggest holdup in Congress?
Well, it’s certainly been the Republican leadership that do not want their members having to vote on this, because I think they recognize if there’s a vote on it, it’s going to pass.
I know there’s the bump stocks bill, the universal background checks bill, but is there anything else you would like to see addressed?
Well, to me, the commonsense gun safety legislation is bump stocks and background checks, assault weapon, the large-capacity clips, I’m sure there’s a few others. I know Sen. [Dianne] Feinstein has “no fly, no buy.” There are different things we can do to make it safer for the American public.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR): “Today is about making sure that this gun violence is just not normalized”
Senator, what do you think Congress can do to prevent shootings like this in the future?
The first thing I’ve been trying to convey is before everybody gets lost in all the bills and amendments, you have to say, with 18 shootings this year, when is enough enough?
And what I’ve really been struck by is listening to some of the comments from the young people. One of them basically said, “We’re young people, we can’t resolve this, we can’t fix it. So we’re trying to tell you adults, get over it and take steps to actually reduce gun violence!” And I want to make sure today, that’s my message.
Anybody can see my voting record about background checks, limiting access to folks on the terrorist watchlist, a whole score of proposals. But today is about making sure that this gun violence is just not normalized.
I’ll tell you the thing I find remarkable. Very often, I’m home in Oregon or anywhere else, and you hear about a school shooting. Everybody watches for a few minutes, then they turn to another channel! It’s almost like, “Well, this is some news and this is normal, and everybody’s going to go off about their day.” That’s what everybody ought to be thinking about today. This is not normal.
Where do you see the lack of action and lack of urgency on this issue happening?
Here! The action is here. I’m prepared to support a variety of bills. But today, this is about getting people to stop the routine and recognize that enough is enough.
But where, specifically, do you see the impediment in Congress to getting legislation?
I’m not even interested in saying it’s this branch and that branch, because that’s going to miss the key point today. The key point today is recognizing that enough is enough.