As the nation mourns the latest American massacre of 19 elementary school students and two teachers in Texas, the deadliest mass school shooting in nearly a decade, gun control efforts remain stalled in Washington, as they have for almost 30 years.
President Joe Biden on Tuesday night made impassioned remarks expressing outrage at lawmakers who are blocking “common-sense” gun laws and rejected the argument often heard from Republicans that gun violence is a mental health issue.
“These kinds of mass shootings never happen with the kind of frequency they happen in America. Why? Why are we willing to live with this carnage?” Biden said with outrage. “Where in God’s name is our backbone to have the courage to deal with and stand up to the lobbies?”
Since the National Rifle Association formed its own political action committee in 1977, the organization has used its deep pockets to lobby lawmakers at the federal and state level to stave off gun control efforts.
According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the NRA spent $1.6 million in the first half of 2019 alone lobbying members of Congress to vote against a proposal to expand background checks for gun sales.
With Republicans offering sympathy to the loved ones of victims in the Robb Elementary shooting, several critics on social media called out their contributions from the gun lobby, citing $13.6 million to Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and $1.2 million to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, over their careers.
The last meaningful gun reform legislation passed on Capitol Hill was the 1994 assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004 due to a “sunset” clause in the legislation. In the nearly 30 years since, gun control measures have mostly stalled on Capitol Hill, and in the current Democratic-controlled Congress, that’s due, in large part, to the Senate filibuster rule.
In the current 50-50 Senate, Democrats need 10 Republicans to join them to reach the 60-vote threshold required by the Senate’s filibuster rule in order to end debate on a bill, allowing it to proceed to a final vote. Republicans have warned even a single exception to the Senate’s 60-vote threshold to advance legislation would be dangerous to the rights of whichever party is in the minority (although both parties have used the so-called “nuclear option” in the last decade — requiring 51 votes to confirm all executive branch and judicial nominees, for example).
Republicans Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn headed back to their home state of Texas on Wednesday to visit Uvalde.
Cornyn has supported bipartisan talks to expand background checks in the past. Cruz has not, and has faced backlash, along with Abbott, for being slated to speak at the NRA’s annual meeting in Houston this weekend, only a few hundred miles away from the massacre in Uvalde. Because former President Donald Trump is also attending, the NRA said Wednesday that firearms would not be allowed at the event, citing Secret Service protocol.
The last time Congress came close to passing substantial gun reform was in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, when a single gunman killed 20 students and 6 adults. Biden was tasked with the White House response on Capitol Hill while serving as vice president, but that effort ultimately failed to garner enough bipartisan support.
In lieu of congressional action, Biden has taken some executive actions aimed at curbing gun violence but conceded last week while in Buffalo there’s “not much” more he can do without congressional support.
Where does gun control stand in Congress?
House Democrats passed two gun control bills last year — one aimed at expanding background check requirements for gun sales, and the second aimed at extending the review period for background checks from three days to 10 days. But Democrats don’t have the votes needed to squash a GOP-led filibuster to pass either bill in the Senate.
Two Senate Democrats — Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — have been adamant in their opposition to changing the Senate filibuster rule.
“If we can’t get 60 or 70 or more votes, we’ll talk then,” Manchin said Wednesday, expressing some confidence that senators could find some common ground before ending the rule.
Sinema, asked directly if she could support scrapping the filibuster to pass gun control legislation, told ABC News’ Trish Turner, “I don’t think that D.C. solutions are realistic here.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer moved Tuesday evening to put the two House-passed bills on the chamber’s calendar, but it’s unclear if and when a vote would be held. If Schumer does bring legislation to the floor, it would likely be an effort to put every single senator on the record, as he’s done with failed legislation on abortion and voting rights.
When eviscerating Republicans in a floor speech Wednesday, Schumer signaled he was disinclined to put up that vote.
“I accept the fact that most of my Republicans are not willing to do what it takes to present this needless loss of life. The NRA will have a hold on them. That’s just the reality, unfortunately, but it is unacceptable to the American people to think that there are not 10 of my Republican colleagues just 10 — one out of five over here — would be ready to work to pass something that we reduce this plague of gun violence,” Schumer said. “It’s unacceptable, that there are not 10 members of the Republican caucus willing to save lives, find a way to do it. And yet, that’s where we are.”
Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who has represented his state since the Sandy Hook massacre also questioned his colleagues on the Senate floor Monday night in a speech that quickly went viral on social media.
“What are we doing? Just days after a shooter walked into a grocery store to gun down African American patrons. We have another Sandy Hook on our hands,” he said. “There are more mass shootings than days in the year. Our kids are living in fear every single time they set foot in the classroom because they think they’re going to be next. What are we doing?”
Renewed talks but will there be action?
While lawmakers on both sides of the aisle often talk about taking action in the wake of deadly mass shootings, there’s not widespread bipartisan agreement on what action to take.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., pushed for The School Safety Act, which would create a federal clearinghouse database and collect information to establish best practices for school safety nationwide. Rubio will try to force a vote on that legislation Wednesday.Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who has accepted more than $3 million from the NRA in his career, told ABC News Congressional Correspondent Rachel Scott that he does support background checks.
“It’s not just about these horrific mass shootings, it’s also about this broader issue of gun violence, and then what are the actual solutions — what’s actually going to make a difference,” he said. “If we’re passing something to make us feel better here, that doesn’t have any impact on the actual issue.”
Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal said he thinks there could be common ground on red flag laws, noting his bipartisan red flag law bill with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. Red-flag laws allow police or family members to petition a court to order the removal of firearms from a person who may present a danger to others or themselves.
But Graham, asked by Scott on Wednesday if he can assure the American people that — this time — something will get done, said, “I can’t assure the American people there’s any law we can pass that would have stopped this shooting.”
With an apparent eye on midterms, Sen. Cory Booker, D-S.C., said he’s urging Schumer to put every senator on the record.
“I’m hoping it comes to the floor for a vote. It will fail. Americans should know that,’ Booker said. “Right now, there are not seemingly 10 senators that want to do the most moderate of things, which is universal background checks supported by almost 90% of Americans, the majority of gun owners, but I do think at this moment its important we put people on the record.”
Americans across party and demographic lines overwhelmingly support expanded background checks (89%) and red flag laws (86%), according to an ABC News-Washington Post poll from 2019.
ABC News Congressional Correspondent Rachel Scott, Trish Turner and Allie Pecorin contributed to this report.