The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans struggle to respond in wake of El Paso, Dayton shootings

Democratic presidential candidates blamed on Aug. 4 President Trump's "divisive rhetoric" for the back-to-back mass shootings. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Republican Party, which controls power in Washington and both states where America’s most recent mass shootings occurred, struggled on Sunday to provide a response or offer a solution to what has become a public safety epidemic.

There were thoughts and prayers, an appeal to donate blood, accolades for law enforcement and a presidential proclamation to lower flags to half-staff to honor the victims — 29 killed in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, and dozens more wounded over 13 hours.

Some Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, cited the influence of social media and video games or mentioned mental health problems. But on the question of how to stem the rising tide of gun violence, the overwhelming response from the party was silence or generalities.

The Post spoke to Democratic presidential candidate and former congressman Beto O'Rourke (Tex.) on Aug. 4 about the shooting in El Paso a day earlier. (Video: Ray Whitehouse/The Washington Post, Photo: Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

“We have to get it stopped. This has been going on for years,” President Trump told reporters Sunday afternoon shortly before returning to Washington — his first public comments since the shootings.

The reaction mirrored how the GOP has responded after other mass shootings whose city names have become painfully familiar to most Americans — Parkland, Fla.; Sutherland Springs, Tex.; Las Vegas; Virginia Beach; Pittsburgh and Annapolis, Md.

A handful of Republican lawmakers on Sunday endorsed stricter gun controls, but most in the GOP ignored Democratic demands that the Senate abandon its summer recess and return to Washington to address the issue. The House passed two bills in February that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has refused to consider.

Congress has been unable to agree on sweeping gun legislation since the 1990s. Lawmakers tried, and failed, after the 2012 shootings in Newtown, Conn., killed 20 children, but the National Rifle Association’s support for the party, the demands of rural voters and Republican warnings about undermining Second Amendment rights have made it nearly impossible for lawmakers to take any steps forward.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said a broader discussion on mental health needs to take place, not just a conversation on gun laws.

“Do we need more laws? Yeah, we probably do. . . . And I think there’s a consensus now that we need background checks,” Portman said at a Sunday news conference. But, he added: “It’s not just about laws. It’s about something deeper.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said in a tweet that lawmakers “need to keep trying” but that “sadly, there are some issues, like homelessness and these shootings, where we simply don’t have all the answers.”

And Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), whose hometown of Charleston suffered a racist mass murder in a historical black church in 2015, defended the power of prayer in the aftermath of these events, saying that the family members of the nine parishioners killed in his city prayed and forgave the murderer.

“A lot of folks say that prayers don’t matter. Well, I will disagree with them vehemently,” Scott said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

After the shootings at Parkland High School in February 2018, when a gunman killed 17 students and staff, Trump briefly embraced a plan to raise the minimum age for gun purchases. He then made an abrupt about-face, instead rolling out a proposal that did not include substantial changes to gun laws.

Last year, the president signed a memorandum directing the Justice Department to ban bump stocks, which let rifles fire more rapidly.

Senate Democrats on Sunday demanded more aggressive steps, calling on McConnell to schedule votes on at least the two bills passed by the House, focusing on background checks for gun purchases and transfers.

“Why run for Congress if you aren’t prepared to pass laws that make people safer?” asked Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “These shooters, contemplating mass slaughter, take note of their government’s inaction, and they infer this silence as endorsement.”

The two bills represent the first significant legislation restricting gun rights to be approved by either the House or Senate since just after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre outside Denver. The first bill, receiving 240 votes — with just eight Republicans voting “yes” — would extend existing laws to require background checks for all gun sales and most gun transfers.

The second bill, which passed with support from three Republicans, aims to close the “Charleston loophole,” a reference to the 2015 shooting in South Carolina. The gunman was able to purchase the weapons after a three-day federal background check failed to turn up a prior conviction, and this proposal would extend that window for completing a background check to at least 10 business days.

Trump has threatened to veto both measures, and any cancellation of the Senate’s recess appears unlikely: McConnell, who fractured his shoulder Sunday morning in a fall outside his Louisville home, declined to address Democratic calls for a special session.

Some House Democrats called on Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to call their chamber back into session to press for more aggressive gun-control legislation than the modest proposals on background checks.

Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), whose district includes Parkland High School, has introduced legislation that would limit the size of gun magazines, an issue Democrats pointed to in light of the massive number of victims this weekend’s shooters hit in just a matter of minutes.

“They’re what these mass killers rely upon to fire as many rounds as they can,” Deutch said in a telephone interview. “We need to get back into session.”

Republicans on the Sunday morning news shows made little mention of gun control legislation. Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said the Trump administration was willing to have a “broad-based discussion” about the causes of mass shootings — but he emphasized factors like social media in addition to weaknesses in the background-check system.

“We’ve had guns in this country for hundreds of years. We haven’t had this until recently, and we need to figure out why,” Mulvaney said.

On Fox News Channel, Patrick called the El Paso shooting “evil,” raised the issue of social media — including the Internet message board 8chan — and referenced a part of the manifesto in which the writer mentioned the Call of Duty video game franchise. Authorities are investigating whether the alleged gunman wrote the manifesto.

“We’ve always had guns. We’ve always had evil. But what’s changed where we see this rash of shooting? And I see a video game industry that teaches young people to kill,” Patrick said.

McCarthy did not directly link the El Paso and Dayton shootings to violent video games, but suggested that those games can cause young Americans to “dehumanize” others, potentially leading to actual violence.

“When you look at these photos of how it took place, you can see the actions within video games and others,” McCarthy said during an interview on Fox News’s “Sunday Morning Futures.”

Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio), whose district includes Dayton, said his daughter and a family friend had just entered the Tumbleweed Connection bar when the shooting began across the street. They fled and later recounted the “bravery they witnessed as officers ran toward the gun shots,” he said in a tweet.

Some Senate Republicans facing tough reelection battles reiterated their support for stronger background checks, something that Congress tried to partially address with legislation in 2018 designed to improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check system.

“I have long supported closing loopholes in background checks to prevent the sale of firearms to criminals and individuals with serious mental illness,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said in a statement, referring to a bipartisan measure by Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.).

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who introduced a federal red-flag bill last year, on Saturday renewed his call for Congress to pass the legislation. Such laws allow family members and law enforcement to obtain court orders to keep guns away from people believed to be dangerous.

And Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, nephew of former president George W. Bush, issued a statement Saturday denouncing the El Paso attack and declaring that “all terrorism must be stopped.”

“I proudly served in Afghanistan as a Naval officer where our mission was to fight and kill terrorists,” he tweeted. “I believe fighting terrorism remains a national priority. And that should include standing firm against white terrorism here in the U.S.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) delivered one of the more forceful condemnations among GOP lawmakers of the El Paso shooter’s act. He pointed to his own heritage as the son of a Cuban immigrant and described himself as “deeply horrified by the hateful anti-Hispanic bigotry” contained in a manifesto that investigators believe was posted online by the suspected gunman.

“We must speak clearly to combat evil in any form it takes,” Cruz said in a tweet. “What we saw yesterday was a heinous act of terrorism and white supremacy. There is no place for this in El Paso, in Texas, or anywhere across our nation.”

Cruz provided no suggestions, however, for steps Congress might take to prevent such shootings in the future.

Americans’ anger over congressional inaction briefly spilled over into public view on Sunday before the Washington Nationals and Arizona Diamondbacks squared off in Phoenix. The deep-voiced public address announcer asked everyone inside Chase Field to stand for a moment of silence in honor of the Dayton and El Paso victims.

It was quiet for a second, then two, before a fan yelled: “How about doing something about it?” A few others joined in with claps and encouragement.

Then the silence broke, the announcer thanked the crowd, and the national anthem was sung.

Jesse Dougherty in Phoenix contributed to this report.