Emotional Portman hopes for consensus on combating gun violence after Dayton, El Paso mass shootings

Ohio Republican, at the Capitol on Tuesday, appeared shaken by deaths

Ohio Sen. Rob Portman was back at the Capitol on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman was back at the Capitol on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 6, 2019 at 10:42am

Ohio Republican Rob Portman said Tuesday that after seeing blood being cleaned from sidewalks in Dayton, he hopes his fellow senators can emerge from their predictable partisan corners to find agreement on more legislation to address gun violence.

Portman pointed to working on “red flag” grants to encourage states to  keep firearms from individuals with mental health challenges as perhaps the most immediate step. Asked about an expanded background check bill sponsored by Pennsylvania Republican Patrick J. Toomey and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III, Portman said, “I think we should look at everything.”

Portman has previously voted against that measure.

The GOP senator found himself back in the Capitol on Tuesday, two days after Sunday’s mass shooting in Dayton, to fulfill a previously scheduled commitment to preside over a Senate pro forma session. He said would return to Ohio after the session.

“I had to come back to do my duty. This is my responsibility that I had committed to a while ago,” Portman told reporters after gaveling out the Senate at 9:07 a.m. “I don’t want to be here.”

“It’s been a tough, tough weekend,” he added, appearing shaken by the deaths of nine people in a mass shooting in his home state less than 24 hours after 22 were killed in a shooting attack in El Paso, Texas.

“These senseless acts of violence can be addressed by some legislation, but it’s deeper than that, obviously, because laws were broken in both cases,” he said. “That someone could point a gun at someone that he … had never met and … pull a trigger is just unthinkable.”

Portman said he toured the scene of the Dayton shooting with fellow Ohio lawmakers, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown and Republican Rep. Michael R. Turner.

“We saw the most, to me, graphic illustration of the horror of that day, where we saw people in hazmat suits cleaning the blood off the sidewalks,” Portman said.

“I think there’s some things we can do, and I think this and other shootings like it will, I hope, motivate us to work together,” he said. “Remember, last year we did pass the school safety legislation and the fix [National Instant Criminal Background Check System] legislation.”

Portman said he was encouraged by Monday’s statement by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell relaying that he had tasked committee chairmen to look into possible legislative solutions. 

“There are some laws that I think bridge this issue of the guns and the mental health issue, and I think red flag laws is one, where you identify somebody who has a mental health history that might not be formally diagnosed, but that people know about,” Portman said. “For instance, this shooter in Dayton had kill lists apparently and other kinds of lists. … Clearly, people knew something was wrong with this guy, and yet nobody went to the proper authorities, or the proper authorities didn’t respond, and we don’t know all the details yet.”

Portman said he spoke Monday with Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham about the “red flag” proposal. Graham, a South Carolina Republican, announced Monday that he had reached an agreement on a framework with Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal on a possible path forward.

“This statute will provide grants and incentives to states like Connecticut to enable law enforcement and courts to remove guns when there’s a risk of danger to a gun owner or others,” Blumenthal said in a statement. “Sen. Graham and I have partnered on developing an Emergency Risk Protection Order statute since last Congress.”

Portman noted, however, that other proposals have come up short of bipartisan consensus “where we chose to go into our partisan corners and each have a proposal that was deadlocked. We can’t afford to do that again.”

He suggested action may also be needed to address the social networks that potential shooters use to communicate online.

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