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‘Ridiculous theater’: Sen. Cruz’s pushback on gun restrictions epitomizes high hurdles

Democrats pushed for action on gun violence on March 23 following a mass shooting in Boulder, Colo. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Virtually every time there is a mass shooting in the United States, the debate quickly turns to whether this might be the one — or, in the case of the last week, the two — that will ultimately force major action on gun restrictions.

In many ways, it seems lawmakers have given up even pretending that might be the case.

The tragedies in Atlanta last week and Boulder, Colo., this week have spurred the expected and logical debate about what more can be done about making sure guns don’t find their ways into the hands of the kinds of people who committed these atrocities. And there is an attempt to have that debate.

But even those who have spurred previous efforts acknowledge it’s likely for naught, as it has long been. Combined with the structural issues and the unusually strong instant pushback from conservative senators, it doesn’t exactly lay the groundwork for something to happen.

The last major push for major gun restrictions came in 2013. The combination of a Republican senator, Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.), and a Democratic senator from a conservative state, Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), gave the movement hope in a Democratic-controlled Senate after elementary school students in Connecticut were massacred. If these lawmakers could support such a bill, and at such a time, maybe it had legs.

In the end, just four Senate Republicans voted for the bill expanding background checks, while multiple Democrats voted against it. Two of those four Senate Republican “yes” votes — John McCain (Ariz.) and Mark Kirk (Ill.) — are no longer in the Senate. Neither are two red-state Democrats who opposed the bill, but in a 50-50 Senate and with the filibuster creating an effective 60-vote threshold, the math is even tougher today.

Toomey is retiring, giving him more latitude to try to push something through. But he didn’t sound especially encouraged about rekindling the “Manchin-Toomey” bill on Tuesday.

“We’re having preliminary conversations, and I hope we can get something across the goal line, but you know, it’s very difficult,” Toomey said.

Toomey and Manchin also, notably, said they oppose broader bills recently passed by the House — with limited GOP support — rendering those effectively moot.

Perhaps the most telling developments Tuesday were in the GOP pushback on these proposals. While there has certainly been resistance to gun restrictions even shortly after tragedies in the past, generally that opposition takes a while to build. Lawmakers don’t want to be seen as prejudging potential solutions with emotions still raw.

By contrast, on Tuesday Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) angrily hit back at those pushing new restrictions and those who criticized the restrictions’ opponents, accusing them of “ridiculous theater.” Democrats have increasingly criticized the “thoughts and prayers” response to such tragedies, arguing that’s insufficient and a cop-out, but Cruz took exception when Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) made that point.

“Every time there’s a shooting, we play this ridiculous theater where this committee gets together and proposes a bunch of laws that would do nothing to stop these murders,” Cruz said.

Sen. Cynthia M. Lummis (R-Wyo.) echoed that point, saying: “Every time that there’s an incident like this, the people who don’t want to protect the Second Amendment use it as an excuse to further erode Second Amendment rights.”

And Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) set the line at any increased background checks, saying, “I think we’ve got enough background checks.”

The GOP pushback isn’t a coincidence; it’s a reflection of its base. Even as mass shootings have increased in recent years, Republican voters have dug in more against efforts to pass new gun restrictions. Democrats will often cite polls showing the vast majority of Americans favor increased background checks — which is true — but when the framing is turned to the more basic question of whether you favor or oppose increased gun restrictions, Republicans are vehemently against.

A Pew poll in 2019 showed that 8 in 10 Republicans thought it was more important to protect the rights of Americans to own guns than to control gun ownership — up from around half just more than a decade ago.

Democrats might believe that these voters — and by extension, their representatives — could be convinced of the wisdom of restrictions that polls suggest the vast majority of Americans support. But these arguments generally get distilled into much more binary form — between increasing gun restrictions versus increasing gun rights. And beyond that, Republican senators know that anything that trends in the former direction would be something they would have to explain in ways they wouldn’t otherwise need to.

In a weird way, the best recent chance for such legislation may have been in the previous administration, under President Donald Trump. Trump for a time at least expressed an interest in increasing restrictions. He was a convert to conservatism, rendering him a somewhat free agent on this issue. And if there was anyone in the GOP who could have brought the National Rifle Association to heel, it was arguably him; such was his sway over the base.

But ultimately Trump opted for a much more limited executive order on the kind of “bump stocks” used in the Las Vegas tragedy. The Senate also passed legislation adding information to the background checks system, but nothing near the scale of other recent proposals.

And the instant resistance to the effort today in Trump’s party doesn’t suggest this will turn out much differently.

Boulder residents paid their respects to the lives lost on March 22 and reflected on the long history of high-profile mass shootings in Colorado. (Video: Alexander Rosen, Lance Murphey, Whitney Shefte, Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post, Photo: Rachel Woolf/The Washington Post)