WASHINGTON – Senators debated with new urgency Tuesday about how to address gun violence in America following a string mass shootings this past week — including one Monday that killed 10 people in Colorado.
Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., opened the hearing by calling gun violence in the United States a “public health crisis” and saying he could ask for a moment of silence, but “in addition, I would like to ask 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?” Durbin asked. “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. Officials did not disclose the identity of a man seen being led away from the store in handcuffs but said he was the only person to receive nonfatal injuries.
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.
Over 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 prevention bests stops mass shootings. But both sides disagree how to do so, and how far to go.
Democrats in the hearing pointed to expanding background checks and banning assault rifles. Republicans pointed to preventing criminals from gaining access to firearms as the solution.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, denounced the latest gun violence while drawing a parallel from the mass shootings to the “civil unrest” during nationwide protests against police brutality last summer.
“Like many Americans, I cherish my right to bear arms,” Grassley continued. “In the dialogue about gun control, we rarely consider how many Americans are united in their advocacy and enjoyment of this right.”
The House passed gun bills. Will the Senate?
The hearing follows House passage on March 11 of two pieces of legislation,which now face a battle in the evenly divided Senate:
The Bipartisan Background Checks Actwould expand background checks on individuals 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. It received eight Republican votes, 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 shooting in 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, where a white supremacist used the loophole to obtain firearms he used to kill nine Black people 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 support.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, agreed during Tuesday’s hearing there have been “far too many tragedies in our country” and something must be done. But, he continued, “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 Violence Against Women Actalso includes a provision that would close the so-called “boyfriend loophole” that allows previously convicted abusive partners, spouses and stalkers to access firearms. That section of the bill has mired the rest of the package in the politics of gun control, hampering its chances of passage.
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 both Democrat and Republican members of the public, according to a 2019 survey by the non-partisan Pew Research Center.
Those who favor background checks for private gun sales and sales at gun shows:
- 93% of Democrats
- 82% of Republicans
Favor banning high-capacity magazines:
- 87% of Democrats
- 54% of Republicans
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 and gun violence on the rise, many lawmakers are insistent that now is the time for reform.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a longtime gun control advocate, declared Monday night, “This is the moment to make our stand. NOW,” on gun control legislation in Congress, arguing that a political moment favorable to stronger gun control legislation had finally come.