In the wake of America’s latest school massacre, House Democrats are pushing once again for tougher checks on firearms and new limits on who can own them.
But as Congress returns to Washington this week following a long spring recess, even some of Capitol Hill’s most ardent gun reformers say they don’t expect last month’s tragedy at an elementary school in Nashville, Tenn., — where a lone suspect shot and killed three adults and three children — to spur Congress to pass any new gun constraints, given the near-unanimous opposition from Republicans in both chambers.
The groundwork for inaction was laid — and the pessimism fueled, Democrats said — by the gruesome shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where a lone gunman killed 26 people — including 20 schoolchildren — in 2012. If that wasn’t enough to spur GOP action, they contend, then neither is Nashville.
“I’m the least cynical person in this building. But you know, Sandy Hook happened 20 miles from my house, and I thought: this changes everything. And of course, it changed very little,” Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) said. “I’m just devastated that these things are just going to keep happening.”
Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), another longtime gun reform proponent, sounded similarly fatalistic, saying Democrats can promote tougher gun laws through “acts of defiance and messaging.” But in the end, Republicans will sink any reform effort, he said.
“If they didn’t do anything after Sandy Hook, what makes us think they’re going to do anything now?” Quigley said.
The tone of resignation has grown familiar in the halls of Congress as the horrors of epidemic mass shootings have repeatedly met the political realities of Capitol Hill, where Republicans are virtually united against any new restrictions on the sale and ownership of firearms.
The GOP opposition runs counter to the sentiments of voters — even Republicans — who are overwhelmingly in favor of tailored reforms like an expansion of background checks to screen out potentially violent people, according to numerous public opinion polls.
With that in mind, Democrats are planning a strategy to promote a series of gun reforms in the coming weeks — including background checks, an assault weapons ban, red flag laws, and others — in an effort to pressure GOP leaders to bring the popular proposals to the floor this year.
Democrats, as the House minority, have few tools at their disposal. But they’re eyeing a procedural gambit, known as a discharge petition, which empowers a simple House majority — 218 members — to force votes on bills the Speaker refuses to consider.
Given the Republicans’ slim majority, that means Democrats would need only five GOP lawmakers to endorse the petition. Lending them a boost, a Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.), is the lead sponsor of the background check proposal.
Still, only eight Republicans had voted in favor of that bill in the last Congress, and several of those lawmakers have since retired, including Reps. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) and Fred Upton (R-Mich.). The numbers have left even the most enthusiastic gun reformers to predict that the discharge petition is likely doomed from the start.
“Pretty hard to count to five [Republicans] in that group; I can count to two or three,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) said just after the Nashville shooting. “Lots of interest, lots of emotion. But the math is a problem in this House.”
Asked if he thought five Republicans might sign a discharge petition, Quigley was similarly pessimistic.
“No. Sad but true,” he said. “You can talk about it, you can use a discharge petition, you can try any procedural thing you want,” he added. “The culture is so different; it’s two different worlds here.”
Congress is no stranger to the fight over guns — a perennial debate that ebbs and flows with the arrival of mass shootings that have grown to epidemic levels and impacted every facet of public life, including schools around the country where live-shooter drills are now routine. In 2020, guns became the leading cause of death among children in America, surpassing car accidents.
The Nashville tragedy occurred on March 27, when a 28-year-old armed with three guns — including two military-style semi-automatic rifles — entered a private Christian elementary school in an upscale neighborhood and killed three children and three adults, according to authorities. The shooter was shot and killed by police on site.
Last year, after another mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, Congress took the rare step of adopting a slate of new gun reforms, including provisions to boost mental health funding, encourage states to adopt red-flag laws, and expand background checks for buyers under age 21.
Yet the package excluded the Democrats’ favored reform proposals — “Nothing to do with serious background checks or assault weapons,” Quigley lamented — and there’s no similar appetite among Republicans to return to the issue now with the 2024 presidential election on the horizon.
Instead, GOP leaders are focusing on the mental health element of gun violence, while calling for armed law enforcers to be installed at every school in the country.
“It just seems like on the other side, all they want to do is take guns away from law-abiding citizens before they even know the facts,” House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.), who was nearly killed during a mass shooting on a baseball field in 2017, said after the Nashville tragedy. “We’ve talked about the need to improve mental health in this country, and that’s been a driver of a lot of these shootings as well.”
Speaking at an annual summit of the National Rifle Association in Indianapolis last Friday, a number of GOP presidential hopefuls — including former President Trump, former Vice President Pence and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — also rejected the notion that easy access to guns is fueling gun violence. Instead, they advocated for arming teachers, institutionalizing those with mental illness and mandating the swift execution of mass shooters.
Trump, who leads the GOP field by a long shot, boasted that he was “the most pro-gun” president in the country’s history, and he vowed to continue that tradition if voters return him to the White House at the polls next year.
“With your support in 2024, I will be your loyal friend and fearless champion once again,” Trump said.
It remains unclear how the GOP’s strategy of leaning into their gun-rights message post-Nashville will play at the polls in 2024. But in the meantime, it’s only heightened the sense among Democrats that any action on guns likely won’t see the light of day in the current Congress.
“Look, when Republicans are sending Christmas cards with their seven-year-olds holding AR-15s,” Himes said, “the nation is sick.”