New mass shootings reveal old divisions on gun control proposals

Few signs Senate will shake years of stalemate on broad legislation

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., arrives for the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Lisa Monaco, far right, nominee for deputy attorney general, and Vanita Gupta, nominee for associate  attorney general, on March 9.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., arrives for the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Lisa Monaco, far right, nominee for deputy attorney general, and Vanita Gupta, nominee for associate attorney general, on March 9. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 23, 2021 at 2:42pm

Sen. Dianne Feinstein came to Tuesday’s hearing on gun control legislation 27 years after leading the passage of a federal assault weapons ban, 17 years since it was allowed to lapse, and the day after such a weapon was used in a mass shooting at a Colorado grocery store that left 10 dead, including a police officer.

“These things are not going to stop, members. They’re just not,” the California Democrat told her colleagues on the Judiciary Committee. “I’ve sat here for a quarter of a century listening, they don’t stop. And if you give people the ability to easily purchase a weapon that can be devastating to large numbers of people, some of them will use that.”

But the debate during the hearing included few signs that mass shootings in the past week would do much to shake years of partisan stalemate over the broader bills to address the complicated causes of gun violence in the United States — such as Feinstein’s measure to reinstate an assault weapons ban that has 35 co-sponsors, all part of the Democratic caucus.

Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz said it was time for Congress to act because he’s been to “too damn many of these” mass shooting scenes in his state, such as a 2016 ambush in Dallas that left five police officers shot dead, the 2017 shooting deaths of 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, the 2018 shooting deaths of eight students and two teachers at Santa Fe High School, and the 2019 killing of 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso.

Yet Cruz and other Republicans said the Democratic-backed measures, such as a House-passed bill to expand background checks for gun sales, don’t address the problem and only seek to disarm law-abiding citizens who have a constitutional right to own a weapon for self-defense.

“Every time there is a shooting, we play this ridiculous theater where this committee gets together and proposes a bunch of laws that would do nothing to stop these murders,” Cruz said.

Cruz cited a proposal he first introduced with Iowa Republican Charles E. Grassley on background checks that didn’t pass the Senate in 2013, when Congress did not pass any legislation after a school shooter killed 20 elementary students and six staff members in Sandy Hook, Conn., in 2012.

The duo reintroduced that bill in 2018 after the deaths of 17 people at a Parkland, Fla., high school. And Cruz said he once again reintroduced that legislation on Tuesday, and blamed Democrats such as Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut for previously blocking the bill.

Grassley, the Judiciary panel’s top Republican, said Tuesday that the House passed a bill earlier this month to expand background checks for private gun sales on a largely party-line vote and “that is not a good sign that all voices and all perspectives are being considered.”

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer has said he will hold a floor vote on that House-passed bill, which would force Republicans to choose between their party’s traditional gun rights positions and a policy that is broadly popular with the public.

President Joe Biden on Tuesday renewed his call for new gun laws.

“We can ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in this country once again. I got that done when I was a senator,” he said at the White House. “It passed, it was the law for the longest time.”

Blumenthal, long one of the loudest voices for gun control legislation, said the public wants Congress to act after the Colorado shooting, which happened less than a week after a gunman in Atlanta killed eight at three businesses.

“Real action, not the fig leaves or the shadows that have been offered on the other side, along with hopes and thoughts and prayers” that cannot save victims, Blumenthal said.

There is no obvious legislative way to stop all mass shootings when attackers vary in motivations and method of obtaining weapons and information continues to be revealed in the two attacks in the past week. But Democrats said their measures would reduce them.

Colorado authorities said the gunman at a Boulder grocery store bought the assault rifle six days before the attack. Feinstein noted that a court had days earlier blocked Boulder’s assault weapons ban meant to stop such mass shootings.

Areas of agreement

There are some proposals that could draw bipartisan support, such as bills to make it harder to evade gun laws by having one person buy a firearm on behalf of someone else.

Feinstein said Tuesday she would introduce a bill to allow for extreme risk protection orders, known as “red flag” laws, that permit courts to intervene with those deemed dangerous to head off potential mass murders. She introduced a bill on the issue in 2019.

A witness at the hearing, Amy Swearer of the conservative Heritage Foundation, told Feinstein that area is one where there is “at least room for bipartisan support” because it would be targeted and not broadly impact people who are not likely to be a danger to themselves or others.

“When you look specifically at mass public shootings,” Swearer testified, “the biggest problem is that most of these individuals, despite these warning signs, were able to pass background checks” to buy a gun because they hadn’t reached a mental health crisis or committed a crime that would prevent them from doing so.

But Swearer added that such proposals need to address due process concerns and many state laws have low standards “for essentially taking away people’s guns on the basis of perhaps aggrieved former lovers or people who are just upset, and it can be a very expensive and time-consuming process for innocent persons to go through.”

Key votes

Legislation for red flag laws got a hearing and had bipartisan support in the Senate after the Parkland shooting but never got a vote in the Republican-led Senate. The House Judiciary Committee, in a heated partisan debate, passed a measure in 2019 to establish a grant program encouraging states to enact laws that allow courts to take firearms away from people suspected of being a danger to the public.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who previously introduced a red flag bill, backed such a proposal again Tuesday. Yet there are still signs that the details could leave the two parties at a deadlock once again.

“Well, there are different versions of it,” Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn, a Judiciary Committee member, said when reporters asked if he supported red flag laws. “I’d want to know exactly what the version is but I’d want to make sure we don’t limit law-abiding citizens’ constitutional rights.”

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., told reporters the House proposals would not pass the Senate, and past proposals on background checks would need changes to “thread that needle.” Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., a key vote on the issue, told reporters Tuesday he does not back the House bill and supports a narrower version of background checks for commercial transactions only.

Colorado Democratic Sen. John Hickenlooper, who as governor pushed for universal background checks in his state after a 2012 shooting that killed 12 in an Aurora theater, told reporters it was too early to tell whether any bills to address gun violence had a path to becoming law.

“How many times have we been at this point, where we’ve seen a shooting, and then we’ve had to rebalance ourselves emotionally and then try to make strong, wise decisions about what the courses of action should be?” Hickenlooper said Tuesday. He added that part of human progress is that “we fail, we regroup, we do it again, and we do it again, and we do it again. So we’ll see.”

Lindsey McPherson, Niels Lesniewski and Rachel Oswald contributed to this report.