The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pessimism abounds as Senate confronts another tragic mass shooting

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) checks notes at a news conference after a weekly Democratic policy luncheon on Capitol Hill on May 24. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Members of the Senate — the ash heap for decades of federal gun-control proposals — confronted another gut-wrenching mass shooting with a distinct sense of fatalism Wednesday, with most Republicans standing firm in defense of expansive gun rights as Democrats said they were desperate to pursue even meager attempts to prevent another tragedy.

Much of the reaction inside the Capitol to the horror in Uvalde, Tex. — where an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 children and two teachers in an elementary school — followed a familiar script, one that has played out repeatedly since 2012, when the tragedy at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School prompted a months-long failed effort to forge bipartisan compromise.

In attempting to explain America’s outlier status on mass acts of gun violence, Democrats blamed the political and cultural influence of the National Rifle Association and its gun industry allies, while Republicans pointed to mental health issues and inadequate school security — or simply maintained it was too soon to discuss a legislative response.

While Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and fellow Democrats signaled Wednesday that they are open to a new round of negotiations with Republicans over modest new gun restrictions, they made clear that they were not optimistic.

“I know this is a slim prospect — very slim, all too slim. We’ve been burned so many times before. But this is so important,” he said on the Senate floor. “If you do the right thing and persist, justice will eventually prevail. … And for that reason alone, we must pursue it.”

Schumer’s remarks Wednesday indicate that he is, for now, siding with members of his caucus who want to at least try to work with Republicans firmly opposed to existing Democratic gun-control bills in hopes of striking a deal around some kind of narrow legislation that could break decades of congressional stasis on guns.

But if past is prologue, those talks could drag on for weeks or longer and peter out as public attention turns away from Tuesday’s shooting in Uvalde and the killing of 10 in a Buffalo supermarket earlier this month.

21 killed in Texas school shooting; victims from same fourth-grade classroom

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) gave no immediate indication about whether Republicans would engage on a potential compromise. In his own floor remarks Wednesday, he called the Texas shooting the work of a “deranged young man” and asked for prayers but did not mention any legislative action.

“It’s literally sickening, sickening to consider the innocent young lives that were stolen by this pointless, senseless brutality,” McConnell said, adding: “The investigation is still underway. The authorities will continue to learn exactly what happened and how.”

The alternative to bipartisan talks would be to hold quick votes on two House-passed gun bills, neither of which would be expected to survive a GOP filibuster, to demonstrate Republicans’ opposition to modest gun-control measures ahead of the midterm elections.

Schumer did not rule out holding those votes eventually. Speaking Wednesday, he acknowledged that some Democrats “want to see this body vote quickly so the American people can know which side each senator is on.”

“I’m sympathetic to that, and I believe that accountability votes are important,” he said. “But sadly, this isn’t a case of the American people not knowing where their senators stand. They know. They know because my Republican colleagues are perfectly clear on this issue — crystal-clear.”

Those attitudes were on full display Wednesday among Republicans who were fully willing to defend the private ownership of firearms — even the military-style rifles purchased by the Uvalde shooter — as a constitutional rights that should not be infringed by Congress.

“I’m very sorry it happened, but guns are not the problem, okay?” said Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.). “People are the problem. That’s where it starts.”

“I don’t think when you have somebody as evil as this individual that they care” about gun laws, said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.). “He murdered kids. He did it in a school, apparently attempted to murder his grandmother. I don’t think he cares what somebody in Congress thinks.”

Several bills under consideration past and present, however, might have kept the Uvalde shooter from purchasing the rifle he used to kill 21 people. The federal assault weapons ban, which was in effect from 1994 to 2004, likely would have included the AR-style rifle he used. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced a bill Wednesday that would raise the minimum age for possession of such a rifle to 21.

A small group of Republicans who have previously engaged on potential changes to gun laws following previous mass shootings — such as Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.) — said they were willing to entertain a new round of negotiations. But many Democrats did not express much optimism that they would be able to bring aboard the 10 GOP votes necessary to defeat a filibuster.

“I do not think on this issue there are 10 Republicans that are serious about doing the things that will make us safer,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who called the predictable reaction a “perverse version of Groundhog Day, where we are literally seeing this over and over and over again with nothing changing.”

The debate over how to move forward was already underway just hours after news of the shooting coursed through the Capitol, with some Democrats calling for quick votes on bills that would expand background checks, ban high-capacity magazines and take other steps to restrict access to deadly weapons.

From Sandy Hook to Buffalo and Uvalde: Ten years of failure on gun control

But Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who led efforts for congressional action after the Sandy Hook shooting, counseled for a different approach — seeking to jump-start dormant talks with Republicans to pass a bill, not make a political point. Schumer agreed to give Murphy and a small group of other Democrats, including Sens. Martin Heinrich (N.M.) and Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), time to find common ground.

“I’m just going to be very willing to be part of a conversation about compromise in the coming days and weeks,” Murphy said during a Washington Post Live event Wednesday. “Because I think we do need to show parents in this country that we’re not just ignoring this.”

Later Wednesday, Murphy tweeted that he planned “to work hard at a compromise for the next 10 days,” during which the Senate is scheduled to be out of session for a Memorial Day recess. “But if we can’t find common ground, then we are going to take a vote on gun violence,” he wrote. “The Senate will not ignore this crisis.”

Schumer moved Tuesday night to place two House-passed bills on the Senate calendar for potential action, but neither attracted significant Republican support in the House and neither has anywhere near the 10 GOP votes necessary for passage in the Senate.

One, the Bipartisan Background Checks Act, would establish universal background checks for commercial gun sales. The other, the Enhanced Background Checks Act, would extend the period to perform a federal background check on a gun buyer from three to 10 days — closing the “Charleston loophole” that allowed Dylann Roof, who killed nine people in a historic African American church in South Carolina in 2015, to purchase a gun despite a previous criminal conviction because the background check was not completed in time.

Bipartisan negotiators have explored other potential compromises in the past that could be the spark for new talks. Murphy negotiated extensively with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) about a narrowed expansion of background checks that would expand the federal definition of a firearms deals, but those talks petered out in 2021.

A separate negotiation emerged in summer 2019, after mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, surrounding “red flag” laws that would allow authorities to seize guns from individuals deemed to represent a threat. A group led by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) negotiated for weeks in talks that also involved then-president Donald Trump’s Justice Department. The negotiations fell apart that September after House Democrats moved to impeach Trump over an unrelated matter.

Graham on Tuesday tweeted that he would “welcome a debate in the U.S. Senate about any and all measures that my colleagues believe will have an effect,” without mentioning any particular provision.

“Let’s debate and vote,” he said.

Several senators with a long interest in forging a gun-control compromise said they believed a background-check expansion proposal would carry the greatest chance of success. That includes Toomey, who worked with Manchin in 2013 to forge a response to Sandy Hook, and Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), whose wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was grievously wounded in 2011 by a would-be assassin’s bullet.

“That this body in the wake of 19 dead little kids, you know, would do nothing, I just find, is totally unacceptable,” Kelly said in an interview.

What we know about the victims of the school shooting in Texas

Any talks, however, face fierce head winds among Republicans. On red-flag laws, for instance, gun rights supporters have been intensely wary of broadly defining what constitutes a threat worthy of suspending the constitutional right to bear arms, and they have been insistent that any legislation include robust due process protections to ensure that any such designation can be challenged and potentially overturned.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who was involved in the 2019 negotiations, said the red-flag proposals he has seen constitute “overreach.”

“Virtually every one that I’ve seen here has been one that sweeps up law-abiding gun owners,” he said, adding: “The question is, can we actually get to policy that can make a difference but not deny people their Second Amendment rights and give them due process?”

Background checks have been similarly problematic, as gun-rights groups have objected to even modest attempts to expand the categories of gun sales that should be covered under existing federal law.

Instead, Republicans have suggested it would be more fruitful to address mental health treatment or school security. But their proposals along those lines have been modest, and Democrats have attacked them as woefully insufficient.

On Wednesday, for instance, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) went to the Senate floor to attempt to pass the Luke and Alex School Safety Act, a bill named after two of the 17 victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in 2018. The bill would establish a “federal clearinghouse on school safety best practices” and allow government agencies to identify potential grant funding from existing programs but would authorize no new money to allow schools to improve security.

“There’s nothing partisan about this bill whatsoever,” Johnson said. “It’s just a good idea that could save lives.”

Schumer objected to Johnson’s request, arguing that “the American people want a real solution to America’s gun violence epidemic.”

“We are going to vote on gun legislation,” he said. “The American people are tired of moments of silence, tired of the kind words offering thoughts and prayers.”

Leigh Ann Caldwell, Paul Kane and Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.