‘Directly related’: Two key words could sink long-shot talks on preventing mass shootings

Mass shootings have become as American as apple pie and strip malls

From left: Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal, Sheldon Whitehouse and Chris Murphy attend a May 26 rally outside the Capitol to demand the Senate take action on gun safety after a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Texas. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
From left: Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal, Sheldon Whitehouse and Chris Murphy attend a May 26 rally outside the Capitol to demand the Senate take action on gun safety after a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Texas. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 27, 2022 at 11:50am

ANALYSIS — There are many reasons to doubt Congress will send President Joe Biden any legislation to slow a spate of mass shootings, including two key words: “directly related.”

A teenage gunman this week turned a Texas elementary school into what Biden called a “battlefield.” He implored the entire country, but also lawmakers, to take action to prevent future mass gun massacres: “Don’t tell me we can’t have an impact on this carnage.”

There are more reasons to expect that negotiations between Senate Democrats and Republicans, which developed slowly, will go nowhere rather than end with a bipartisan bill that would have “an impact.”

Apple pie. Tackle football. Fast-food joints. Baseball. Strip malls.

All are pure Americana, essential components of the fabric of life in the United States. And now: Mass shootings?

“Why are we willing to live with this carnage?” Biden asked hours after another 18-year-old gunman started shooting, this time at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. He slaughtered 19 young children and two adults. “Why do we keep letting this happen?” Biden said.

The bottom line is, Mr. President, enough Americans and lawmakers seem willing to live with mass shootings — even if they kill children in Uvalde or older folks at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., as another teenage gunman did on May 14.

More Biden: “Where in God’s name is our backbone to have the courage to deal with it and stand up to the lobbies? It’s time to turn this pain into action.”

A collective backbone among the negotiators would help. But too much backbone in these partisan times most likely would simply mean Democrats and Republicans digging in on what matters to them most.

For Democrats, that means passing something that is directly linked to the kinds of semi-automatic guns used in these uniquely American mass murders.

“Every other nation, from Canada to England, has all the same issues that we have: mental health issues, people being whipped into hate on the internet, violent video games,” Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., a Judiciary Committee member, told reporters Wednesday. “The only difference between their countries and ours is that we are a nation that makes it so easy for people so intent to kill others to get these weapons or war.”

Senate Judiciary Committee member Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said, “No one is more frustrated than me.”

“We need to act,” he said. “Seeing those images from Texas yesterday just brought back all of the searing grief and pain that we felt after Sandy Hook.”

Blumenthal is working with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on a potential measure that would allow district court judges to order firearms in the possession of potentially dangerous individuals to be seized. The duo has, unsuccessfully, worked on such “red flag law” legislation before, only to have their work halted due to a lack of GOP support.

But, even as those leadership-blessed negotiations toward a long-sought mass shooting-prevention bill began, many Democrats had their doubts about passing a truly impactful bill that Biden, who will travel to the grief-stricken Texas town Sunday, could sign into law. They see too many Republicans as seeing any bill as a guns grab.

“Since this is the 24th shooting on a K-through-12 [grade] campus this year, with 28 killed, I’m sorry to say it’s becoming increasingly frequent. I just hate to use the word ‘normal,’” Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., who also chairs the Judiciary Committee, said.

Booker called lawmakers’ inaction on trying harder to prevent mass shootings “the most distorted Groundhog Day that I’ve ever seen.”

Raising his voice to reporters, he made this prediction, referencing past mass school shootings in Florida and Connecticut: “I can tell you what’s going to happen in the Senate, because I’ve seen it before. It’s just going to be the same thing it was before, after Parkland, after Newtown. Here, nothing is changing.”

As the week played out, however, Republicans came to the negotiating table. Whether they are serious about those talks is unclear, especially in an election year and with a base that is serious about their Second Amendment rights.

“I am seeing more attention” to the problem from GOP senators, Blumenthal said.

‘Bulletproof glass’

While some Democrats echoed Durbin’s sullen outlook and tone, others were just plain angry. One was Booker, who firmly rejected calls by Republicans — including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Fox News commentator Sean Hannity — to physically “harden” all American schools.

“So if you want to point to all of these other things that you think are really going to make us safe, and they don’t address the ease with which Americans can get guns when they want to kill people, then you are really not serious about solving the problems,” Booker said.

“And, I’m sorry, the solution is not to have every school in America with bulletproof glass and high walls and moats around them,” he said. “That doesn’t protect our kids — if anything, it creates more trauma … and more fear, which ultimately drives more of this problem.”

In a series of interviews with CQ Roll Call, Republicans made clear that the negotiations will fail if Democrats press too hard to enact new restrictions on someone’s ability to purchase a gun.

Republican Sen. Rick Scott, the former Florida governor who had to respond to mass shootings in his state, ticked off a number of policy ideas to deal with mentally unhealthy individuals who might become mass shooters; school safety; and information-sharing about threatening social media posts among local, state and federal law enforcement entities. But the National Republican Senatorial Committee chair also said this: “I don’t believe in taking away a law-abiding citizen’s gun rights.”

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, mentioned a stalled bipartisan bill from Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., on expanding background checks. He also suggested “modernizing and updating our capacity to determine whether someone should be able to have a firearm.”

So what to think of the House-passed bill on beefing up domestic terrorism identification within the federal government that Senate Republicans blocked on Thursday? Romney contended that measure would not have helped prevent future massacres, before appearing to partly contradict his own mass shooting prescription: “We have very ample capacity … at the federal level to ID all the potential threats of terror, whether white supremacists or any other group, so establishing a bill to do what’s already being done doesn’t make much sense.”

Republican lawmakers sent sympathies to the victims’ families. They called for national unity to support a community torn apart by a teenager’s rage and bullets.

But none echoed the president and Democrats’ contention that legislative action is required, instead offering save some vague suggestions that Congress reexamine bills on red flag laws or other steps. Both chambers are starting a weeklong Memorial Day recess. By the time they return, since there have been more mass shootings than days in 2022, the only question is how many more communities will be in mourning?

‘I certainly hope not’

Another major hurdle is the Senate calendar: The chamber is on recess until June 6. Lawmakers and top aides will work the phones and exchange emails, but as time passes, the feeling of grief — and legislative urgency — will fade. The television crews and satellite trucks will likely be gone from Robb Elementary School by the time senators return to Washington.

That means there is perhaps too much time for a deal to fall apart. That’s why Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer has warned that the chamber will vote on House-passed background check legislation after the break if the Blumenthal-Graham talks run aground.

But no one sees red flag laws and background-check system tweaks as a fix-all. So, for now, there is but one answer to all of Biden’s questions: Mass shootings, like COVID-19, are a scourge Americans must figure out a way to cope with. And, hopefully, avoid.

Asked whether mass shootings are now like COVID-19, meaning something we just have to deal with, Romney said: “I certainly hope not.”

Enter Mitch McConnell, the Senate GOP leader.

“I am hopeful that we could come up with a bipartisan solution that’s directly related to the facts of this awful massacre,” McConnell said this week. “I’m going to keep in touch with them, and hopefully we can get an outcome that can actually pass and become law rather than just scoring points back and forth.”

That might give the White House and Democrats more hope if not for two words: “directly related.” That’s McConnell code for including nothing on gun rights.

“No, we should never accept this sort of hate and violence and sickness in our country,” Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., replied when asked if mass shootings are the country’s new normal. “It should consume all of us. And as we grieve for all the families and all those who lost lives and all who are feeling pain … we should resolve to learn from these lessons.”

Young did not respond when asked what role Congress could play.

Parts of this article first appeared in the subscription-only CQ Senate newsletter, an afternoon examination of politics and policy.