A House committee was set to consider a bill Wednesday that would make it easier to buy silencers for firearms. Then a gunman opened fire at an early-morning congressional baseball practice in Virginia, injuring House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and three others.
The hearing was postponed in the wake of the shooting, as were most other House activities. The provision’s sponsor, Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), left the scene of the shooting shortly before the event unfolded. He believes he met the gunman.
The proposal is the first significant gun measure before Congress since President Trump’s election. Already it had reignited the debate on Capitol Hill over gun control. After the shooting, Republicans and Democrats were lining up in expected formation around the issue. Republicans reiterated their support for the Second Amendment, some Democrats called for reform, and other Democrats resigned to the political reality of being in the minority.
“It’ll have the same ending as all the other conversations about gun control,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said in an interview. “I don’t know how this guy got a gun. I don’t know if he did it legally. I don’t know if he did it illegally. I have an AR-15. I’m not going around shooting people with it. Guns, knives, cars, bombs. That’s the world in which we live.”
Republicans say mental health and polarization are the problem — not guns
Other Republicans repeated the same sentiment as Graham. They saw the problem as one of mental health, of the hyperpolarization in politics — but not one that required more restrictions on guns.
“I don’t see this as gun control issue,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), who leads the archconservative House Freedom Caucus, said. “I think to default to that would be a missed opportunity to be thankful for every moment we have, be thankful for our law enforcement, and ultimately to understand that the mental health component is an important thing for us to address.”
Some Republicans zeroed in on the reported political leanings of the shooter, while waving away questions about any new gun control measures.
“It always turns into that,” Duncan told reporters. “Here’s the thing, you look at the guy’s Facebook page, he’s a Bernie Sanders follower. He’s the one who actually picked up a firearm and took action.”
On the possibility of any new gun restrictions after the shooting, Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ) said: “That’s not where we’re at right now.”
She then moved to the civility issue, lamenting the rhetorical extremes she says she sees in American politics. McSally herself has been the subject of death threats.
“I do think we need to take a hard look inside ourselves into how we are behaving toward each other in our sincerely held different beliefs on public policy issues,” she said. “It is disturbing and concerning to see the way we’re interacting with each other as human beings.”
Social media accounts under the name of the shooter expressed support for progressive politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and called Republicans “racist.”
Duncan told reporters he believed he had spoken to the shooter moments before the gunfire started and the man had asked him if the people practicing baseball were Democrats or Republicans.
“He asked me if this team was the Republican or Democrat team practicing. I responded that it was the Republican team practicing, and he proceeded to shoot Republicans,” he said. “Take that for what it’s worth.”
Democrats admit a new gun control law is very unlikely
A few Democrats urged Congress to take a look at new gun restrictions after Wednesday’s attack.
But others, including several lawmakers who have pushed for major gun control bills in the past, were largely fatalistic about the prospects of a policy response.
“I just don’t get overexcited anymore,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who drafted a bipartisan bill to expand background checks for gun sales with Republican Sen. Pat Toomey that failed in 2013, told reporters.
There are 33,000 firearm deaths in the United States every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Calls for greater gun control have followed school shootings and terrorist attacks in Orlando and San Bernardino in the past few years.
Some Democrats view the failure of the Manchin-Toomey proposal as the definitive end to any hope for major gun control legislation from Congress, at least for the near future.
It came after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in which 26 people, most of them young children, were killed. The proposal nonetheless fell short of the 60 votes it needed when the Senate voted it in April 2013.
Another 1,400 mass shootings have happened since.
“I think we’re beyond the place in which Washington responds to mass shootings,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) told reporters. “We don’t.”