New Speaker Mike Johnson offered prayer Thursday as response to a mass shooter who killed 18 and injured 13 others in Maine, while any legislation to address gun violence faces an uphill climb under his tenure.
The Louisiana Republican, in his first full day as speaker, made a statement to reporters at the Capitol that the shooting late Wednesday was a “horrific tragedy” but did not take questions.
“This is a dark time in America. We have a lot of problems, and we are hopeful and prayerful,” Johnson said. “Prayer is appropriate at a time like this, that this senseless violence can stop.”
As one of the most conservative Republicans to hold the speakership in modern times, Johnson’s opposition to gun control laws could keep any bills on the issue from reaching the House floor.
That won’t be a change. Earlier this year, under then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Democrats launched an effort through discharge petitions to force floor votes on a series of gun control bills.
None of them have received the signatures of enough members of the chamber to move forward.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters later Thursday that it’s great to hear calls for thoughts and prayers for the families and victims of the tragedy in Maine, but that Johnson and Republicans can put forth legislation and “help save lives.”
“Obviously, we want them to make sure they know they’re in our thoughts and prayers,” Jean-Pierre said of the families and victims. “But that’s not enough.”
Johnson has opposed gun control measures for years, including a measure passed into law last year that beefed up criminal background checks for those under age 21 for the next decade, created grants for state crisis intervention laws and provided several billion dollars in mental health and school security funding.
During floor debate on that measure, Johnson criticized the legislation as unconstitutional and reiterated many statements he made on a podcast with his wife that blamed America’s violent crime problem on a lack of faith.
“America’s problem is not guns. America’s problem is a heart problem,” Johnson said during the floor debate.
During that podcast with his wife, Kelly Johnson, he interviewed Pastor Y. J. Jimenez, who had a congregation near an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, where a shooter killed 19 students and two teachers in May 2022.
During the podcast, Johnson emphasized the importance of turning to faith in response to the violence.
“I’m a public official and when I say, ‘We are praying for someone,’ you know, those who don’t believe criticize us for that as though it is not important, but it is important,” Johnson said.
Johnson said that young men frequently feel isolated in modern society, made worse by the years of the pandemic where “we sort of put them away for a couple of years and they sort of sat around and played violent video games and the bitterness inside of them turned to rage.”
“We’re dealing now with the inevitable results of decades of secular humanist ideology and the rise of moral relativism and the marginalization of people of faith and the erosion of the rule of law,” Johnson said.
Johnson said that has “come together in the sort of toxic soup we have in the culture” and that “these things are so tragic, but they are really not that surprising when you consider what we have been doing for the last 60 or 70 years in this country.”
During the podcast he called discussions of gun control “inevitable” following the Uvalde shooting and said his “gun-grabbing colleagues” in the Democratic Party had overstepped by proposing a wide variety of gun control measures following the shooting.
During that Democrat-led legislative push for a renewed assault weapon ban, Johnson offered an amendment that would have created an exemption for employees of crisis pregnancy centers, which he argued had been targeted following the Supreme Court ruling that overturned the constitutional right to abortion. Democrats voted down that amendment.
However, Johnson’s stint as speaker does little to shift the long-standing partisan gridlock on gun control legislation.
Numerous members on both sides of the aisle said Thursday they would try to restart bipartisan talks, but quickly acknowledged that political reality.
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., one of the Republicans who backed the 2022 law and has sponsored several bipartisan gun control measures, said the filibuster in the closely divided Senate presents a greater challenge to passing legislation.
“The House is not the problem. It’s the Senate. We have the votes in the House. They don’t have the votes in the Senate,” Fitzpatrick said, pointing to measures he has backed, such as so-called red flag laws and universal background checks, that the other chamber has not taken up.
“So I think I think realistically, this stuff is gonna have to start in the Senate and be taken up in the House because everything we’ve said to them has never been voted on,” Fitzpatrick said.
One of the Republican backers of the 2022 law, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, said Thursday that it may be too soon to look at changing the law in response to the shooting Wednesday in Lewiston, Maine. He pointed out that law has not yet been fully implemented and pointed to news reports that the alleged shooter in Lewiston had been committed to a mental institution before embarking on the shooting.
“I’m not sure what law we could pass that would address this because it looks like he was illegally in possession of a firearm in the first place. Sometimes people just don’t care what the laws are,” Cornyn said.
Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., one of the lead negotiators on the bipartisan package that passed last Congress told reporters that he was open to bipartisan negotiations but didn’t expect there would be much in the offing.
“I’m going to talk to [Maine Sen. Susan] Collins, you know, after she comes back from the weekend, see if there’s any potential common ground, but we’re probably gonna just have to win some more elections,” Murphy said.