WASHINGTON – Senators debated with new urgency Tuesday how to address gun violence in America after a string of mass shootings in the past week, including one Monday that killed 10 people in Colorado.
Dick Durbin, D-Ill., opened the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing by calling gun violence in the United States a “public health crisis” and asked for “a moment of action. A moment of real caring.”
“Prayer leaders have their important place in this, but we are Senate leaders. What are we doing?” asked Durbin, the committee’s chairman. “We won’t solve this crisis with prosecutions after funerals. We need prevention before shooting.”
On Monday evening, a gunman opened fire at a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado, killing 10 people, including one police officer. A 21-year-old Colorado man now faces murder charges. The shooting comes less than a week after a gunman opened fire on local businesses in the Atlanta area, killing eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent. The attacks sparked national grief and outrage over racism, misogyny and gun violence.
More than 41,000 people were killed in 2020 by gun violence, a record experts say was driven by the public health, economic and social fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
Republicans and Democrats on the committee agreed that prevention was the best way to stop mass shootings. But they disagreed on how to do so and how far to go.
Democrats called for action, specifically on passing legislation that would expand background checks for firearms purchases. Some also called for banning assault rifles.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., echoed Durbin’s call to do something beyond thoughts and prayers, saying “inaction has made this horror completely predictable. Inaction by this Congress makes us complicit.”
Blumenthal, saying his Republican colleagues haven’t been willing to offer more than thoughts and prayers, said, “We need to end this epidemic with a comprehensive nationwide approach: expanded background checks.”
“Without access to the weapon, the Atlanta shooter is just a racist and misogynist. But armed with a firearm, purchased that very day, he is a monster. A mass murderer. A disturbed man going into a grocery store yesterday, armed with a weapon of war, can kill with the brutal efficiency and speed meant for combat.”
Republicans said expanded background checks would not have played a role in the shootings but would infringe on Second Amendment rights.
“Like many Americans, I cherish my right to bear arms,” said Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, top Republican on the committee. “In the dialogue about gun control, we rarely consider how many Americans are united in their advocacy and enjoyment of this right.”
Republicans instead pointed to different means to prevent criminals from gaining access to firearms and touted alternative pieces of legislation that would create a task force to prosecute those who fail criminal background checks, among others.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, agreed during Tuesday’s hearing that there have been “far too many tragedies in our country” and something must be done. But, he said, “every time there’s 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.”
The House passed gun bills. Will the Senate?
The hearing follows House passage this month of two pieces of gun legislation,which now face battles in the evenly divided Senate.
The Bipartisan Background Checks Actwould expand background checks on people seeking to purchase or transfer firearms. It would not create a registry or other federal mechanisms for review but would expand the cases in which a background check is required for the sale or transfer of a firearm, including for private individuals and groups, closing the “Gun Show Loophole.” The requirements would apply to online sales.
The bill passed the House by a margin of 227-203. Eight Republicans voted for it, and one Democrat voted against it.
The Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2021 would similarly close the “Charleston loophole,” a gap in federal law that lets gun sales proceed without a completed background check if three business days have passed. It is linked to a 2015 shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, where a white supremacist used the loophole to obtain firearms and killed nine Black worshippers during a Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church. The bill would extend the initial background check review period from three to 10 days.
The legislation was passed 219-210, with two Democrats opposed and two Republicans in favor.
President Joe Biden called on the Senate Tuesday to pass the two pieces of legislation and went further in urging Congress to ban assault weapons.
“We can ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in this country once again. I got that done when I was a senator. It passed, it was the law for the longest time, and it brought down these mass killings. We should do it again,” Biden said.
The Violence Against Women Act, which passed the House last week, also includes a provision that would close the “boyfriend loophole” that allows previously convicted abusive partners, spouses and stalkers to access firearms. It’s that section of the bill that has mired the rest of the package and its chances of passing. Republicans have decried the “boyfriend loophole,” saying it is too broad and would ensnare people for minor offenses.
Majority of Republicans polled agree with certain gun measures
While the Second Amendment and gun control is perceived as a politically divisive issue, many measures have support from Americans on both sides, according to a 2019 survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
Those who favor background checks for private gun sales and sales at gun shows:
- 93% of Democrats
- 82% of Republicans
Who favor banning high-capacity magazines:
- 87% of Democrats
- 54% of Republicans
Who favor banning assault-style weapons:
- 88% of Democrats
- 50% of Republicans
With Democrats having unified control of Congress and the White House for the first time in a decade, many lawmakers insist now is the time for change.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a longtime gun control advocate, declared Monday night that “this is the moment to make our stand” on gun control legislation in Congress, arguing that a political moment favorable to stronger gun control legislation had finally come.
Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., who represents Boulder in Congress, said in a statement Monday: “While there is still a lot we do not yet know, one thing is very clear – tragic incidents of gun violence have plagued our country for far too long. It doesn’t have to be this way. There are steps we can take – and must take – to protect our community; common-sense, broadly supported proposals that will save lives.”