WASHINGTON – Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer swiftly set in motion a pair of background-check bills for gun buyers Wednesday in response to the school massacre in Texas. But the Democrat acknowledged Congress' unyielding rejection of previous legislation to curb the national epidemic of gun violence.
Schumer implored his Republican colleagues to cast aside the powerful gun lobby and reach across the aisle for even a modest compromise bill. But no votes are being scheduled.
"Please, please, please damn it — put yourselves in the shoes of these parents just for once,” Schumer said as he opened the Senate.
He essentially threw up his hands at the idea of what might seem an inevitable outcome: “If the slaughter of schoolchildren can't convince Republicans to buck the NRA, what can we do?”
The killing Tuesday of at least 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, has laid bare the political reality that the U.S. Congress has proven unwilling or unable to pass substantial federal legislation to curb gun violence in America.
In many ways, the end of any gun violence legislation in Congress was signaled a decade ago when the Senate failed to approve a firearms background check bill after 20 children, mostly 6- and 7-year-olds, were killed when a gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Despite the outpouring of grief Wednesday after the starkly similar Texas massacre, it's not at all clear there will be any different outcome.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., called it a “put-up or shut-up moment."
While President Joe Biden said “we have to act,” substantial gun violence legislation has been blocked routinely by Republicans, often with a handful of conservative Democrats.
“Where’s the backbone, where’s the courage to stand up to a very powerful lobby?“ Biden said Wednesday, speaking at the White House before signing an executive order on policing.
"When in God’s name will we do what’s needed to be done?” asked the president. who announced that he and first lady Jill Biden would visit Uvalde soon.
Despite mounting mass shootings in communities nationwide — two in the past two weeks alone, including Tuesday in Texas and the racist killing of Black shoppers at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket 10 days earlier — lawmakers have been unwilling to set aside their differences and abandon the gun lobby to work out any compromise.
Even the targeting of their own failed to move Congress to act. Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was shot in the head at an event outside a Tucson grocery store in 2011, and Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., was severely injured when a gunman opened fire on a Republican congressional baseball team practice in 2017.
“The conclusion is the same,” said Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. “I’m not seeing any of my Republican colleagues come forward right now and say, ‘Here’s a plan to stop the carnage.’"
It’s “nuts to do nothing about this,” Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., Giffords’ husband, said Wednesday, using an expletive.
Republicans quickly pushed forward a bill championed by Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin that would create a nationwide database of school safety practices. But Schumer objected to its immediate consideration, vowing a much broader debate and votes.
Pleading with his colleagues for a compromise, Murphy said he was reaching out to almost a dozen Republicans, including the two Texas senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, and had called fellow Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who co-authored the bill that failed after Sandy Hook.
“When you have babies, little children, innocent as can be, oh God,” Manchin told reporters, noting he had three school-age grandchildren. “It just makes no sense at all why we can’t do common sense — common sense things — and try to prevent some of this from happening.”
In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, compromise legislation, written by Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, was backed by a majority of senators. But it fell to a filibuster — blocked by most Republicans and a handful of Democrats, unable to overcome the 60-vote threshold needed to advance.
The same bill flamed out again in 2016, after a mass shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
Toomey told reporters Wednesday, “My interest in doing something to improve and expand our background check system remains.” He said he had been in contact with Murphy.
But Toomey was a GOP outlier. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has declined to publicly comment on potential legislation, and few others added their voices to the mix.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins said Congress should focus on state "red or yellow flag laws" — which are designed to keep firearms away from people who could harm themselves or others.
One known deal-maker, Democratic Sen. Krysten Sinema of Arizona, told reporters Wednesday she'll start having conversations with senators on red flag laws or others. In the House, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said he would bring a federal red flag bill forward for a vote, expected the week of June 6 in the run-up to the midterm elections.
“People at home all across America are just, they’re scared. They want us to do something,” Sinema said.
But other Republicans panned those efforts as too far-reaching, and instead suggested agreement could be found to send federal funding to the states to beef up security or other locally tailored deterrents.
A modest effort to encourage compliance with the federal background check system for gun purchases did make it into law in 2018, after mass shootings during the Trump administration. Biden White House officials said they were exploring executive actions if Congress fails to act.
Former Republican Sen. Bill Frist, a medical doctor who had been his party’s leader, urged action Wednesday. “We can find ways to preserve the intent of the Second Amendment while also safeguarding the lives of our children,” he tweeted.
Biden, whose party has slim control of Congress, has failed to push gun violence bills past what is now primarily Republican opposition in the Senate.
Last year, the House passed two bills to expand background checks on firearms purchases. One would have closed a loophole for private and online sales. The other would have extended the background check review period, a response to the church shooting of Black people by a white man in South Carolina.
Schumer immediately set them in motion for votes as Murphy and the other senators spend the next 10 days or so trying to draft a compromise. Both bills had languished in the 50-50 Senate, where Democrats have only a narrow majority because of Vice President Kamala Harris' ability to cast a tie-breaking vote and need at least 10 Republicans to overcome a filibuster.
The stalemate has renewed calls to do away with Senate filibuster rules for legislation, lowering the threshold to a 51-vote majority for passage.
“What we continue to run up against is the Senate rules, which are rigged in such a way that it ignores what the American people want,” said Christian Heyne, vice president of policy at Brady, an organization pressing to end gun violence.
Cornyn and Cruz were both in Uvalde on Wednesday. Cruz earlier issued a statement calling Tuesday “a dark day. We’re all completely sickened and heartbroken."
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville, Mary Clare Jalonick, Alan Fram, Farnoush Amiri and Chris Megerian in Washington and Susan Haigh in Hartford, Connecticut, contributed to this report.