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Senate Democrats plan votes on background checks for gun buys

'That's why we were elected,' Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said after the Texas school shooting

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., right, speaks to reporters in the Capitol last July, with Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., right, speaks to reporters in the Capitol last July, with Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Spurred by the deadliest school shooting in nearly a decade, Senate Democrats made plans to hold votes next month on House-passed measures to expand criminal background checks prior to gun purchases.

Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing the day after a gunman killed 19 students and two adults at a Texas elementary school, said there would likely be a floor vote on those bills after the chamber’s Memorial Day break.

“It’s too late to prevent the last shooting. We’ve already failed those victims and families,” Durbin, the committee chairman, said Wednesday. “We need to act to prevent the next shooting. We need to identify the risks and threats and finally do something.”

Durbin nodded to the years of gridlock that has stopped gun control bills from passing Congress, including HR 8 and HR 1446, both of which the House passed in March 2021. The first bill would expand background checks for gun sales; the other would increase to 10 days the time a purchaser must wait for that background check.

“I think it’s time for the Senate to vote on it,” Durbin said. “It takes bipartisanship to pass anything in the United States Senate in an evenly divided Senate, but we should vote. That’s why we were elected.”

Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, in remarks on the Senate floor Wednesday, blamed Republicans for blocking the background check bills but urged some of them to find a way forward.

“It is unacceptable to the American people to think that there are not 10 of my Republican colleagues, just 10, one out of five over here, who would be ready to work to pass something that would reduce this plague of gun violence,” Schumer said.

But if there’s not a bipartisan bill, “we will continue to pursue this issue on our own,” Schumer said. “We have no choice. It’s too important. Lives are at stake.”

Schumer on Tuesday took a procedural step to open up options for the two background check bills, including the possibility of setting up floor votes. President Joe Biden urged congressional action in remarks Tuesday night.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, in floor remarks Wednesday, did not mention any potential legislation or other action the Senate could take in the wake of the shooting. The Kentucky Republican called the shooter a “maniac,” and said it is “literally sickening” to think about the innocent lives lost.

“The investigation is still underway. The authorities will continue to learn exactly what happened and how,” McConnell said.

He called on a higher power than the Senate when he referenced comments from the Uvalde school superintendent about how Uvalde is a small community and needs prayers to “get through this.”

“We pray fervently that in the midst of this nightmare of grief, our heavenly father will make manifest to those families his promise in Psalm 34: that the lord is near to the brokenhearted,” McConnell said.

Later Wednesday, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer announced that the House will hold a vote on a gun-related bill when it comes back in session in June. “Congress must do more to #EndGunViolence,” Hoyer tweeted.

The Maryland Democrat pointed to a bill that would establish a national so-called red flag law from Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga., which was approved by the House Judiciary Committee in October. The legislation would allow for a federal court to order the seizure of firearms from those deemed a danger to themselves or others.

At the Judiciary Committee hearing, ranking member Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, criticized the Biden administration’s approach to combating gun violence and plugged his own proposal, titled the Eagles Act, which he first introduced in response to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida in 2018 and reintroduced last year.

“It would give schools and law enforcement additional resources to make sure dangerous individuals can’t do what happened yesterday,” Grassley said.

The bill would expand the mandate of the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center to include school violence. Under the bill, the Secret Service would use the center’s resources to train other law enforcement agencies to identify potential threats in advance and provide warnings when an attack may be imminent.

Both House and Senate versions of the Grassley bill have bipartisan co-sponsors. Neither chamber has acted on the proposals this Congress or when it was previously introduced in 2019.

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