A congressional committee held an emergency session Thursday to take up a package of gun violence prevention bills, likely setting up votes on the House floor next week.
The House Judiciary Committee’s Thursday morning session was scheduled in the wake of recent mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas.
Then Tulsa, Okla., joined the growing list of mass shooting sites Wednesday when a gunman opened fire in a medical building, killing four before taking his own life.
The Uvalde shooting, in which 19 children and two teachers were killed last week — not long after Black shoppers were killed in a racist attack in Buffalo — has jolted Congress into taking action, even if prospects for passage are dim.
Democrats narrowly control the House, where legislation is passed by a simple majority. But in the Senate, there’s a 50-50 split and most bills need 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.
That means that although the House can pass bills without any Republican support, GOP backing in the Senate is critical for any measure to have a chance to become law.
“There are no perfect solutions,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said in his opening statement. “We are painfully aware that we cannot do enough today to save all of these lives.”
The White House announced midday that President Biden will deliver a prime-time address on the recent mass shootings “and the need for Congress to act to pass common-sense laws to combat the epidemic of gun violence.”
Biden, who will speak at 4:30 p.m. Pacific time Thursday, has kept his negotiations with Congress mostly out of view since getting burned last year after months of negotiations on a domestic spending package fell apart. But with Congress making progress on legislation, aides worried that he seemed too distant from the process on an issue that has again moved to the front burner.
Vice President Kamala Harris, speaking at a higher education event, took time to acknowledge the shooting in Tulsa and urge congressional action. “No more excuses,” she said. “Thoughts and prayers are important but not enough. We need Congress to act.”
The House panel convened to take up the Protecting Our Kids Act, a package Nadler said “links together important, sensible, overwhelmingly popular proposals that will help us to scale back the scope of gun violence in the United States.”
The package includes provisions raising the age to purchase a semiautomatic rifle from 18 to 21; making the import, sale, manufacture, transfer and possession of grandfathered magazines a new federal offense; creating new federal offenses for gun trafficking and straw purchasers, and authorizing seizure of the property and proceeds of the offense; establishing safe storage requirements on residential premises with criminal penalties for violation; and building on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ regulatory bans on bump stocks and ghost guns.
Nadler argued that each proposal is “wildly popular” with Americans and dismissed criticisms that Democrats are rushing to move legislation to politicize tragedies.
“It has been 23 years since Columbine, 15 years since Virginia Tech, 10 years since Sandy Hook, seven years since Charleston, four years since Parkland and Santa Fe and the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh,” he said. “It has been three years since El Paso. It has been a week since we learned again that gun violence can reach any of our children and grandchildren at any time and that no number of armed guards can guarantee their safety.
“It has not even been 24 hours since the last mass shooting, and who knows how long until the next one,” Nadler continued. “Too soon? My friends, what the hell are you waiting for?”
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the top Republican on the committee, said no one wants to see another tragedy or relive another mass shooting.
“That’s why it’s regretful that Democrats have rushed to a markup today at what seems more like political theater than a real attempt at improving public safety or finding solutions,” he said.
Jordan said Democrats never reached across the aisle to seek Republicans’ input on the legislation being considered and accused the opposing party of rushing to convene the markup to appeal to Democratic primary voters.
“The American people expect and deserve more from us than political charades that rehash old ideas and don’t actually solve the underlying problems,” Jordan said.
While Democrats have largely turned their attention back to guns to prevent mass tragedies, Republicans have framed mental health and school safety as the core issue that needs to be addressed.
In the upper chamber, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) sought to appeal to conservatives in a Fox News op-ed published Thursday morning.
Murphy, a fierce gun safety advocate, expressed a willingness to accept “incremental change” in a bipartisan deal to reform the nation’s gun laws. Murphy is negotiating with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who was given Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) blessing last week to pursue a bipartisan deal with Democrats.
While acknowledging Americans’ 2nd Amendment right to bear arms, Murphy argued that constitutional rights have limits. For instance, he said, criminals and people with serious mental illness shouldn’t have a right to own weapons, and Congress should be able to determine “which weapons are so dangerous as to be kept exclusively in the hands of the military.”
Murphy conceded that he’ll have to accept “a smaller set of reforms than I would prefer” to reach a deal with Senate Republicans. He highlighted the tightening of background checks, incentives for states to create red flag laws and investments in mental health resources and school security upgrades as examples of “incremental change.”
“For me,” Murphy wrote, “the only thing we cannot do is nothing.”
“I don’t know if any of these reforms would have stopped the massacre” in Uvalde or Buffalo, Murphy said. “No matter what the defenders of the status quo say about people like me, our agenda isn’t radical. My desire is simple — to find a way for Republicans and Democrats to come together around a small but meaningful set of changes to our nation’s gun laws, along with major investments in mental health, that will make it less likely that another Sandy Hook or Uvalde ever happens again.”
Times staff writer Eli Stokols contributed to this report.
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