The shooting of members of a Republican congressional baseball team on an Alexandria field Wednesday morning was in some ways a microcosm of the long-standing and heated debate about guns in American society.
For those in favor of gun control, that the shooter legally owned and carried a permit for the military-style semiautomatic rifle he used in a public place proved their point that too many guns with too much firepower are far too accessible. If he had not had access to such a rifle, would he have been able to injure multiple people?
For gun rights supporters, that armed officers from the U.S. Capitol Police stopped the shooter and prevented what could have been a mass slaying showed the importance of having guns in public so people can defend themselves against such attacks. Imagine what would have happened if it had been regular citizens on that field with no security detail in sight?
“It would have been a massacre without them,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said of the police officers who shot James T. Hodgkinson, the attacker.
“If this had happened in Georgia, he wouldn’t have gotten too far,” Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.), who was on the baseball field, told reporters. Loudermilk noted that one of his staffers keeps a 9mm handgun in his car when in Georgia but does not have a firearm with him in the D.C. area because of legal restrictions in the city.
Within minutes of the shooting Wednesday, it became clear that the right and left would both view the incident as tragic and reprehensible, but also that they would view the context very differently.
“If grown GOP were scared this am, can one imagine the terror kids had at Sandy Hook? Wake up GOP!!! #GunControl,” read an early-morning tweet.
“Before libs start w their Gun Control bs, this could have been done with a large truck or a butcher knife, good people w guns stopped it,” read an opposing early-morning tweet.
Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) told a Buffalo television station that he will now carry his gun everywhere in light of the shooting. “I have a carry permit,” he said to WKBW (Channel 7). “On a rare occasion, I’d have my gun in the glove box or something, but it’s going to be in my pocket from this day forward.”
In Virginia, where citizens may carry guns, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) argued for more background checks and to close a loophole that allows sales without background checks at gun shows in the state.
McAuliffe said his advocacy for greater gun control was “not for today’s discussion,” but he said: “I think we need to do more to protect all of our citizens. I have long advocated — this is not what today is about, but there are too many guns on the street.”
McAuliffe’s comments drew fire immediately from Katie Pavlich, a Fox News contributor.
“Of course, Governor Terry McAuliffe goes for more gun control as Republicans attacked say they only had baseball bats 2 defend selves,” Pavlich tweeted.
John Whitbeck, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, retweeted Pavlich’s tweet and took an additional swipe at McAuliffe: “Disgusting. Not a day for politics.”
Yet the Second Amendment argument was almost unavoidable, with the notable wrinkle that the alleged shooter had made numerous anti-Trump statements on social media, appeared angered by Republican politics, was an ardent fan of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and lashed out at Republicans who support gun rights.
The shooting occurred on the same day that members of Congress were set to hold a hearing on legislation to deregulate gun silencers. The hearing was canceled. Those supporting the deregulation bill have dismissed current restrictions as unnecessary and costly, while gun control advocates have argued that lifting restrictions on silencers could lead to more gun violence.
The Republican who sponsored the bill, Rep. Jeff Duncan (S.C.), happened to be at the baseball diamond Wednesday morning.
Just before the shooting began, Duncan and Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) said they spoke to a man they now think was Hodgkinson. Duncan, who was just about to leave the practice field, said the man asked whether the team practicing was a Democratic or Republican team.
“I told him they were Republicans,” Duncan recalled. “He said, ‘Okay, thanks,’ turned around.”
The Republican lawmaker most seriously injured in Wednesday’s shooting, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (La.), is a longtime and enthusiastic supporter of gun rights. Scalise remained in critical condition Wednesday afternoon.
In 1999, as a state lawmaker, Scalise sponsored a bill that would protect gun manufacturers and gun retailers against civil lawsuits in an attempt to snuff out litigation that the city of New Orleans was pursuing. That bill passed and was ultimately successful in killing the New Orleans lawsuit after the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the law in a 2001 ruling.
Later, after New Orleans police confiscated weapons during the Hurricane Katrina crisis in 2005, Scalise wrote a bill that would prohibit future confiscations during public emergencies.
“If you are taking away their guns, you are taking away their only protection,” Scalise told the New Orleans Times-Picayune as the bill was under debate.
In Congress, Scalise has maintained a top rating from the National Rifle Association. In the last Congress, Scalise introduced a bill that would make it easier for gun dealers to do business across state lines and co-sponsored a measure that would compel states to allow people to carry guns if they were licensed to do so in another state.
He strongly opposed gun-related executive actions taken by then-President Barack Obama after the 2012 shooting massacre at a school in Newtown, Conn., tightening various federal provisions.
“Efforts to restrict the 2nd Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans will only punish those who play by the rules and will be ignored by criminals who break the law,” Scalise said in a news release. “This radical attempt by the Obama Administration to unilaterally rewrite the Constitution will launch our nation down a slippery slope as the White House shows a dangerous disregard for the rights and freedoms guaranteed to every American.”
Almost immediately after Scalise was shot Wednesday, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence issued a statement decrying the attack.
“While the details are still unfolding, it is clear that another tragedy has occurred in our nation,” Dan Gross, the Brady Campaign president, said in the statement. “All Americans, including our elected leaders, should live in an environment where they can pursue every day activities without fear of being shot.”
Former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head in 2011 while meeting with constituents and has become a leading voice on gun control, called Wednesday’s shooting “an attack on all who serve and on all who participate in our democracy.”
“I am heartbroken for the pain of Congressman Scalise, the other victims, and their family, friends and colleagues who survived,” she said in a statement.
Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.