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Nashville shooting unearths familiar partisan split on gun bills

President Joe Biden and Democrats press for assault weapons ban, while Republicans push for more officers in schools

Tennessee Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn, seen here at a Judiciary Committee hearing in 2022, on Tuesday called for Congress to pass her legislation to increase security at schools.
Tennessee Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn, seen here at a Judiciary Committee hearing in 2022, on Tuesday called for Congress to pass her legislation to increase security at schools. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The shooting at a private school in Nashville has reignited a debate in Congress over American gun violence, but there’s still no clear line for lawmakers to pass further legislation on the issue.

The deaths of three children and three adults at the school Monday prompted President Joe Biden and some congressional Democrats to renew calls for legislation to ban assault weapons or bolster the background check system, which Republicans have opposed.

“I can’t do anything except plead with the Congress to act reasonably,” Biden told reporters Tuesday as he departed the White House.

And some Republican members of Congress called for measures that would add more law enforcement officers at schools, efforts that in the past have run into opposition from some Democratic senators.

“We have to work to protect children at school, and that means increasing security,” Tennessee Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn said at a Judiciary Committee hearing the day after the school shooting in her state.

“I have, and I have had, legislation that would allow for training and hiring of veterans and former law enforcement officials to serve as school safety officers and help protect our schools,” Blackburn said. “It is time for us to pass that.”

House debate

In the House, Democrats expressed a desire to act to address gun violence — and alluded to the minority party needing some Republicans to join on something like a discharge petition to force a floor vote on a bill. Such a move would need support from a majority of the House members.

Democratic Caucus Chairman Pete Aguilar said at a news conference Tuesday that lawmakers must pass meaningful gun safety legislation and need to “look at every possible way to do so.”

“We must give families the peace of mind to send their kids to school without fearing for their lives, but we need reasonable Republicans to come to the table to make this happen,” Aguilar said. “It’s an outrage that we can’t find a handful of Republicans.”

Rhode Island Democratic Rep. Seth Magaziner said Tuesday that “every avenue, every procedural avenue, I think is still on the table.”

“And our hope is that we can find even just a handful of reasonable Republicans who are willing to stand up for their constituents instead of the gun companies,” Magaziner said.

But Republicans who have the House majority did not seem interested in the kinds of legislation that Democrats would want to pass.

“Let’s work to see if there’s something that we can do to help secure schools,” House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., said. “We’ve talked about things that we can do. And it just seems like on the other side, all they want to do is take guns away from law-abiding citizens.”

Scalise said he gets angry when he sees people “trying to politicize” tragedy for “their own personal agenda.”

Off the Hill

Congress sought to address school shootings and other forms of gun violence through a bipartisan legislative package passed last year after public outrage over a mass shooting at an elementary school in Texas. The law, which required more thorough background checks for gun purchasers under 21 years old but also invested in school-based mental health services and school safety, got support from 14 of the 207 House Republicans who voted.

Meanwhile, Democrats this year are pushing for more to be done on the issue of gun violence. Earlier this month, Biden rolled out an executive order aimed at upping the number of background checks on firearm sales. In particular, he said the executive order directed Attorney General Merrick B. Garland to take every lawful action possible to move “as close as we can to universal background checks without new legislation.”

Garland, speaking about the Nashville shooting at a Senate subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, said the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the FBI are working with state and local police.

“The Justice Department will do everything that we have within our power to try to prevent these kinds of really horrific shootings,” Garland said.

Senate Judiciary Chair Richard J. Durbin, in the hours after the shooting Monday, urged his colleagues in a floor speech to come together and ban assault weapons that can shoot 83 rounds in a minute.

“I cannot imagine the Founding Fathers would even envision what we are allowing today in the name of words that they wrote in the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights,” Durbin said.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas on Tuesday said some people like to use assault rifles to hunt or for home defense.

“They have a constitutional right to do so,” he said. “And again, there seems to be [an] obsession with the gun and not with the actual person pulling the trigger, which is where I suggest the focus should be.”

Michael Macagnone contributed to this report.

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