WASHINGTON — Nearly a decade after the Senate failed to act on the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, Democrats are once again trying to turn outrage over child deaths by gunfire into action by Congress to curb gun violence in America.
But with the Republican position tougher than ever, calls for negotiations to find an answer to recent horrors in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, NY left few lawmakers with high hopes that Congress would produce something significant.
“Please, please, please, damn it, put yourself in the shoes of those parents,” New York Senator Chuck Schumer, the Majority Leader, appealed to his Republican peers as he pushed for at least expanding background checks to gun buyers .
Polls show the proposal has support from up to 90 percent of Americans, including many GOP voters, but Republicans have blocked action against it for virtually a decade. Their stance reflects the power of the gun rights issue for grassroots Republican voters, whose zeal for the 2nd Amendment means any GOP lawmaker who embraces even the humblest form of gun control risks a primary challenge that costs them theirs could work.
After initially paving the way for a quick vote to put Republicans on the ground for background checks, Mr. Schumer backed out on Wednesday, saying there was no point in doing so because their opposition was already “crystal clear.” Instead, he said he will try to find a consensus proposal that could attract enough Republicans to break the inevitable filibuster.
“The plan is to work hard on a compromise over the next 10 days,” Connecticut Senator Christopher S. Murphy, who has led the Democratic prosecution for gun safety legislation since Sandy Hook, said on Twitter Tuesday. “Hopefully we succeed and the Senate can vote on a bipartisan law that saves lives. But if we don’t find common ground, we will vote on gun violence. The Senate will not ignore this crisis.”
On Thursday, the Senate will face the first test of moving to adopt legislation passed by the House of Representatives last week after the racist mass shooting in Buffalo to bolster federal resources to prevent domestic terrorism. Mr. Schumer said that unless Republicans pick up the procedural motion just to pick up the measure, he will open the bill to bipartisan amendments to address gun violence.
There was little sign that consensus was in sight.
Republicans proposed the now-familiar litany of alternative responses — tougher “red flag” laws to make it easier for law enforcement to seize guns from the mentally ill, more aggressive mental health interventions and more armed guards in schools — many of which Democrats consider totally inadequate.
And Democrats questioned whether they could find common ground with Republicans for broader action on gun violence after previous proposals had ultimately failed.
“We’ve been burned so many times,” Mr. Schumer said when it came to negotiating a bipartisan compromise.
The echo between the December 2012 mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in Sandy Hook, which killed 20 children and six adults, and the violence in Uvalde, Texas, which killed at least 19 children and two teachers, is painful. In both cases, a loner from the community attacked an elementary school, overwhelming children and adults with an arsenal.
After Newtown, then-Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was charged with inciting a bipartisan coalition of at least 60 senators to act and breaking a threatened Republican filibuster. On Tuesday night, a seemingly tormented President Biden advocated “common sense gun laws,” including a ban on assault weapons, declaring, “It’s time to put this pain into action.”
But Mr. Biden also appeared to hold back in his remarks on Wednesday, rather than calling for concrete action by Congress, vaguely citing the need to show “backbone” and challenge the powerful gun lobby.
Then, as now, there was bipartisan legislation, authored by Senator Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat, and Patrick J. Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, to mandate universal criminal background checks for gun buyers at gun fairs and Internet sales. Then, as now, the barrier was the Senate’s requirement for the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.
Recognition…Tom Brenner for the New York Times
But in recent years, party lines between Republicans and Democrats have only hardened, not just on gun rights but on the much broader issue of how to balance individual liberty and collective responsibility. On gun control, climate change, taxation, and pandemic security mandates, Republicans seem to have decided that individual rights trump a collective, societal response, regardless of the cost.
“Maybe it’s a personal responsibility not to shoot people with guns,” said Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, “and maybe people who don’t live up to that responsibility should be in prison for a very, very long time — like forever.”
Beyond elective office, some Republicans seemed to have had enough. Bill Frist, a former Tennessee Senator who was Majority Leader from 2003 to 2007, wrote on Twitter: “I can’t imagine this is what the Founding Fathers hoped or intended. We can find ways to uphold the intent of the Second Amendment while protecting the lives of our children.”
Such sentiments were hard to find among elected Republicans.
Mr. Schumer framed his call for negotiations as strategic. A quick vote on legislation passed by the House of Representatives to strengthen background checking would almost certainly be thwarted. Republicans would complain about wasting time with political show votes. The Democrats would castigate the Republicans for their opposition. Nothing would be accomplished and the Senate would move on.
Negotiations could at least make gun safety a topical issue for a while.
“When things like this happen, I think they raise awareness of the bigger picture — I’m not going to say it’s better, but the greater collective response,” Senator Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican, said of the bloodshed from Uvalde. “I think that’s what we’re probably all dealing with right now.”
But it wasn’t clear that much had changed. Mr. Manchin indicated that he would not drop his opposition to changing the Senate’s filibuster rules, which would allow Democrats to push through gun control laws against a unified Republican opposition. He insisted that with good will a broad compromise could be reached and that such a move was unnecessary.
“If we can’t get 70 or 75 senators who don’t vote for proper protection of your children and grandchildren, then what on earth are we here for?” asked Mr. Manchin. “What is your purpose in being in the United States Senate? If it’s not at least about protecting the children?”
The first interview has started. Mr Murphy reached out to Mr Toomey and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, two of the four Republicans who voted in 2013 for the bipartisan background check bill co-sponsored by Mr Manchin.
“I remain interested in doing something to improve and expand our background screening system,” Mr Toomey told reporters.
The April 2013 vote for universal background checks received 54 votes. But eight of the “yes” votes for the bill have been replaced in the past decade by the potential votes of conservative Republicans.
On the other hand, five of the 2013 “No” votes were replaced by Democrats – two in Georgia, one in New Hampshire, one in Arizona and one in Nevada.
But with a 60-vote threshold in the Senate, the odds were still slim. There was little evidence that the murdered children of Uvalde, Texas, would shake the near-unanimous opposition to any measure restricting access to guns.
When asked what he would say to the parents of the children who were killed, Senator Tommy Tuberville, a Republican from Alabama, told reporters, “I am willing to say that I am very sorry that it happened. But guns aren’t the problem, okay? people are the problem. That’s where it starts, and we’ve always had guns. And we will continue to have guns.”
The two Democratic opponents of changing the filibuster rule, Mr. Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, seemed similarly unmoved in that position.
Recognition…Tom Brenner for the New York Times
“Despite the fact that there’s always heated rhetoric here in DC, I think there’s an opportunity for us to have real conversations and try to do something,” Ms. Sinema said, without dropping the filibuster. and spoke to reporters on Capitol Hill.
The heated language extended well beyond Washington.
On Wednesday, Beto O’Rourke, the former Democratic congressman who is now challenging Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, confronted the governor and other state officials who oppose gun control measures during their visit to Uvalde, interrupting their news conference to abstain from “doing nothing.” scourge. combat gun violence.
In the Capitol, some Republicans rushed to propose solutions that would circumvent the gun problem entirely. Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, went to the Senate to seek approval to pass his bill creating a federal clearinghouse for school safety best practices. Democrats refused.
With lawmakers talking past each other, it wasn’t clear that anything discussed would address the recent mass shootings. Republicans have long favored more armed guards, arguing that the only way to stop a bad person with a gun is to make sure more good people have guns. But in Buffalo and Uvalde, the gunmen were confronted by armed guards who failed to prevent the massacre. For all the talk of red-flag laws, the Texas killer appeared to have no known mental health issues.
Likewise, recent mass shootings appear to have been carried out with legitimately purchased weapons that would not have received additional scrutiny under the Democratic background check laws.
Legislation that would have directly impacted the possibility of slaughter — bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines — are no longer a key feature of Democrats’ gun safety agenda, although Mr. Biden has repeatedly mentioned them in recent days.