Hours after a gunman armed with an AR-15 rifle barricaded himself into a classroom at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school, killing 19 children and two teachers on Tuesday, Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut was on the Senate floor to make a variation of the same impassioned plea he had been making for the last decade.
“I am here on this floor to beg—to literally get down on my hands and knees and beg my colleagues,” said Murphy. “Find a path forward here. Work with us to find a way to pass laws that make this less likely. I understand my Republican colleagues may not agree to everything I support, but there is a common denominator we can find.”
It was a new speech for a new mass shooting, but the same storyline was already playing out: A lone gunman shoots up a school, or a grocery store, or a nightclub. Swaths of gun control advocates implore lawmakers to reform the systems that enabled the killings, while Democratic lawmakers try to find common ground with Republican counterparts.
And then Congress does nothing.
Such was the case in 2012, when Murphy was a Congressman representing the area where a gunman killed 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School. And just like after that massacre a decade ago, of which the Texas massacre immediately drew comparisons, the sense of frustration and impotence among Democrats in the Capitol was palpable.
“I hope to get a bill to the floor as quickly as possible. But you know what’s going to happen is it’s going to fail,” Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, told reporters Wednesday. “We are caught in the most perverse version of Groundhog Day, where we are literally seeing this over and over and over again, with nothing changing.”
Amid renewed calls to action on Tuesday from Murphy and others, many lawmakers couldn’t hide their indignation that, once again, any substantive proposals tackling the problem were widely viewed as dead on arrival. “It’s f-cking nuts to do nothing about this,” says Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona, whose wife Gabby Giffords, a former Congresswoman, was shot and nearly killed in a 2011 assassination attempt.
Some lawmakers are certainly trying to do something, but those efforts often felt largely performative in the face of an evenly split Senate where supporters of stricter gun control measures lack the 60 votes needed to bypass a filibuster. Less than a day after the shooting, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer initiated a legislative process called “Rule 14,” which will allow two House-passed gun control bills to advance without committee hearings. One of these bills would require background checks for more kinds of gun sales, including online purchases and those at gun shows. The other would give the FBI 20 days instead of three to complete background checks on people who wish to buy guns from dealers. Both bills have been sitting in limbo since the House passed them in March 2021.
Several Democratic lawmakers quickly threw cold water on the prospect of these bills—or less expansive ones, like national “red flag laws” that allow law enforcement to temporarily take guns from people deemed to be a threat—passing the Senate’s 60-vote threshold.
Republicans say “they are disturbed, upset, troubled, but not willing to change where they are,” says Sen. Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware. “This is a bad day for anything even vaguely looking like hope or optimism around legislative progress.
“Usually, I want to be more optimistic,” he adds, “but I don’t think it will change.”
A few Republicans said they were open to limited measures on Wednesday. Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania has said he would consider expanding background checks, pointing to a compromise measure he proposed with Sen. Joe Manchin, a centrist Democrat from West Virginia, after the Sandy Hook shooting. “My interest in doing something to improve and expand our background check system remains,” said Toomey, adding that he thinks a plan like that “would have the best chance” of getting more GOP support.
Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Roy Blunt of Missouri, and Rick Scott of Florida, told reporters on Wednesday that they were perhaps open to a federal “red or yellow flag law,” which can allow local law enforcement to temporarily remove guns from people who pose a violent risk to their communities. At least 19 states, including Maine and Florida, have already passed such measures. “That is the kind of law that could have made a difference in this case,” Collins says, citing media reports about the shooter’s mental health.
But Senators were mostly vague about what they would want these red flags laws to look like at the federal level, while another prominent centrist Republican, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, said he thought such laws should continue to be created at the state level, despite the political will not being there for such policies in many states, including Texas. “They’re administered at the state level [now], and each state has a different approach,” he says. “That makes sense. Let’s have the states do it.”
Other Republicans were less open to new federal measures restricting access to guns. “I’m very sorry it happened,” Sen. Tommy Tuberville, an Alabama Republican, says of the Uvalde shooting, “but guns are not the problem. People are the problem.”
Murphy concluded his fervent floor speech on Tuesday night with a series of questions: “Why are we here? What are we doing?”
If history is any indication, the answer to that second query is not in doubt: Congress hasn’t passed a major bill to limit gun ownership since 1994. And that one, commonly referred to as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, expired in 2004 because of a sunset provision.
That track record is unlikely to change in the immediate future. The House is currently out of session, and Senators are scheduled to leave town on Thursday for the holiday weekend. Lawmakers will return after a recess with more time having passed since the shooting, and possibly less motivation to address the issue—at least, until the next mass shooting restarts the cycle.
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