WASHINGTON —The deadliest shooting at an elementary school in America, in Newtown, Connecticut, a decade ago, wasn’t enough to shock GOP lawmakers into dropping their objections to gun control.
The second-deadliest such shooting, in Uvalde, Texas, where at least 19 elementary school children died on Tuesday, isn’t likely to either.
Over and over again on Wednesday, Republican senators on Capitol Hill dismissed the need for expanded background checks for gun purchases, rejected calls to restrict the use of AR-15s and other semiautomatic weapons, and generally threw their hands up when pressed about the increasing frequency of mass shootings, suggesting it was all a mental health problem.
“We’ve had guns forever and we’re gonna continue to have guns,” Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) adamantly told reporters, pointing the finger at drugs in schools.
Gun violence seems to be worsening amid a proliferation of firearms in the U.S. More than 45,000 Americans died in shootings in 2020 as the firearm homicide rate increased 35%, reaching its highest level since 1994, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gun violence became the leading cause of death among children and adolescents in 2020, according to an analysis of CDC data by researchers at the University of Michigan.
“I don’t know what the silver bullet is.”
– Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.)
Many GOP senators said new gun laws wouldn’t stop mass shootings, regardless of how they were structured. Some suggested so-called red-flag laws to help prevent shootings, but such a law in New York didn’t stop a gunman from killing 10 people at a grocery store in Buffalo this month.
“I have carefully studied mass shootings going back to Columbine,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) told HuffPost. “You go back and look at these horrible, evil perpetrators — either the existing laws were broken and in most cases the proposed laws would not have stopped the violence.”
When asked if he supported keeping guns out of the hands of teenagers, who are able to purchase an assault-style rifle in Texas at age 18 but can’t buy alcohol until they’re 21, Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said: “The vast majority of teenagers, you’re never going to have an issue like this.”
“Remember, we already make it illegal to have guns in schools. We already made the atrocity itself — murder — illegal,” Rounds added.
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) defended the ability of Americans to purchase AR-15 rifles, the most popular weapon used by mass shooters, even though they weren’t available when the Second Amendment was written.
“I don’t know that our forefathers didn’t anticipate the day when both the government and the criminals and law enforcement and the citizens would access more sophisticated systems of all types,” Cramer said.
Asked how his constituents would respond if he backed gun control legislation, Cramer said they “would probably throw me out of office.” But he rejected the notion that Republicans are scared of the National Rifle Association.
“It’s not the NRA, it’s gun owners, individual gun owners,” he said.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said his position hadn’t changed; he favors improving background checks and leaving gun laws to the states.
Calls for improved background checks have been the default response to high-profile shootings for several years. Under current law, licensed gun dealers are required to contact the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System to verify the buyer doesn’t have a criminal record. But people who aren’t professional gun dealers don’t have to be licensed and don’t have to run a background check when they sell a gun.
The House of Representatives approved two background check bills last year on a bipartisan basis. One bill would expand background checks to such private sales by requiring the parties to get a licensed dealer to run a background check. The other would extend the three-day waiting period if the background check system doesn’t immediately respond.
Democrats took steps this week to put the legislation on the Senate calendar, but the Senate isn’t likely to take up either bill until next month, at the earliest. Lawmakers are scheduled to leave town on Thursday for a previously scheduled two-week recess.
Senators on both sides of the aisle are deeply pessimistic about the chances of any sort of compromise on gun control. Passing new legislation would require at least 10 Republican votes, but the GOP overwhelmingly opposes nearly all gun restrictions.
“I don’t know what the silver bullet is,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said. “I think that it is incumbent on all of us to be open-minded and to see what makes sense.”