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House lawmakers debate gun control bill as mass shootings rage on

Hours after yet another mass shooting, members of the House Judiciary Committee returned to Washington, D.C., for an emergency hearing on gun control legislation, voting to advance a package of reforms aimed at curtailing gun violence as the nation remains rattled from a recent series of high-profile mass shootings.

The Protecting Our Kids Act would raise the legal age for purchasing some semi-automatic weapons from 18 to 21 years old, ban certain high-capacity gun magazines and create a new federal offense for gun trafficking and straw purchases, in which a middleman is paid to buy a gun on behalf of another.

Additional proposals would codify into federal law existing regulations from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives that ban bump stocks and require ghost guns — DIY weapons kits — to meet the same background check and serial number requirements as other guns on the market.

Provisions of the package also aim to target the safe storage of firearms, requiring the attorney general to develop best practices guidelines for gun storage and making it a finable offense to store a gun with knowledge a minor is likely to access it.

The package does not include a ban on assault weapons.

The marathon hearing on the legislation came less than 24 hours after a gunman carrying a rifle and handgun shot and killed four people Wednesday inside a medical building on a hospital campus in Tulsa, Oklahoma and just nine days after a mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

During the attack in Uvalde, an 18-year-old armed with a semi-automatic rifle killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School, the deadliest in a recent slew of mass shootings that has emboldened demands for Congress to take action on gun safety.

Just days before that attack, an 18-year-old espousing white supremacist views targeted a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York, killing 10 people and injuring three others.

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“In the days since the shooting at Tops Friendly Markets store in Buffalo, New York; and in the long, sad nights since the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas; and in just the last few hours, as we learned about more deadly gun violence in a Tulsa, Oklahoma, medical office building, I have turned to a particular teaching in the Talmud: ‘Whoever kills one life kills the world entire, and whoever saves one life saves the world entire,’” said Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said at the beginning of Thursday’s hearing.

Acknowledging that not all gun violence can be prevented, Nadler urged the committee to vote in favor of the legislation and respond to growing calls for congressional action.

“The American people are begging for us to address this crisis,” Nadler said.

In the wake of the shootings, Republicans have largely called for mental health resources and more safety precautions at schools, while Democrats are pushing for Congress to pass gun control legislation for the first time in more than a decade.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, said that the House will vote on the package of gun control reforms next week and will soon hold a hearing on an assault weapons ban, though such comprehensive gun control legislation is unlikely to garner support in the 50-50 Senate where legislation requires 60 votes to overcome the filibuster.

Senators are currently working on their own bipartisan gun control proposals, including “red flag laws” that would authorize courts to temporarily order the seizure of firearms from people determined to be a threat to themselves or others.

Partisan wrangling dominated Thursday’s hourslong hearing as lawmakers’ tense rhetoric and repeated finger-pointing underscored the difficulty of getting gun control legislation through a deeply divided Congress.

Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the ranking Republican on the committee, accused Democrats of rushing to achieve a political win and curtail Second Amendment rights, a criticism that’s been popular among Republicans rebuffing calls for gun control.

“What we’re doing here is just designed to appeal to Democratic primary voters. The bill won’t make your school safer. It will hamper the rights of law abiding citizens and it will do nothing to stop mass shootings. We need to get serious about understanding why this keeps happening,” Jordan said.

Nadler preemptively rejected Jordan’s criticisms in his opening statement, noting that conversations about gun control legislation have been decades in the making.

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“You say it’s too soon to take action, that we are politicizing these tragedies to enact new policies. It has been 23 years since Columbine, 15 years since Virginia Tech, 10 years since Sandy Hook, seven years since Charleston, four years since Parkland, Santa Fe and the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. It has been three years since El Paso,” Nadler said. “It has been a week since we learned again that gun violence can reach any of our children and grandchildren at any time, and that no number of armed guards can guarantee their safety. It has not even been 24 hours since the last mass shooting and who knows how long until the next one. Too soon, my friends? What the hell are you waiting for?”

Referencing the hours it took to identify the children killed in the Uvalde massacre, Nadler emphasized that regular mass shootings are a uniquely American problem.

“Only in the United States [do] we ask the parents of elementary school children to stand in line so we can match their DNA to the remains of their children, because only the United States is awash with 400 million guns,” Nadler said.

Republican Representative Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin accused Democrats of wanting to “repeal the Second Amendment,” arguing that instead of addressing guns, lawmakers need to “address the family unit, society.”

“The knee-jerk reaction is to always punish law-abiding citizens for the sins of the few. The answer is always to play for more restrictions on the masses instead of holding the individual accountable,” Tiffany said.

Representative Ken Buck of Colorado defended the need for semi-automatic rifles, referencing the ways the high-capacity firearms can be used as hunting weapons.

“In rural Colorado, an AR-15 is a gun of choice for killing raccoons before they get to our chickens. It’s a gun of choice for killing a fox,” Buck said.

In 2020, guns became the leading cause of death among children and teens, according to research by the New England Journal of Medicine analyzing decades of CDC data.

Speaking in front of a poster board collaged with pictures of the children killed in Uvalde, Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas asserted that the lack of congressional action on gun control is a stain bringing shame on the legislature’s reputation.

“This is the question of whether or not we as Americans are blind,” Lee said. “And I’m calling on all of you to have a sense of humanity, courage, decency. God knows we need action.”

Representative Lucy McBath, a Democrat from Georgia whose 17-year-old son Jordan Davis was murdered in 2012 for playing loud music in his parked car, pleaded for Congress to act on gun control.

“Do we have the courage right here in this body to imagine the phone call parents across Uvalde received last week? A phone call that confirms our fear, our singular fear that ‘My child is dead, that I was unable to protect them.’ Because I know that phone call. Parents across the country know that phone call,” McBath said.

McBath, who became a fierce advocate for gun control in the wake of her son’s killing, said Congress’ inability to act on gun control is taking a toll on young people.

“An entire generation of children are learning that the adults they look up to cannot or will not protect them,” McBath said. 

Republican Representative Greg Steube from Florida, who attended the hearing remotely, argued that part of the legislative proposal banning high-capacity magazines would effectively ban his guns, which cannot use smaller capacity magazines.

Steube made his point by displaying three handguns for the cameras.

As lawmakers inquired about Steube’s location and whether the guns were loaded, he noted “I’m at my house. I can do whatever I want with my guns.”

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Partisan tensions mounted during the hearing and Representative Eric Swalwell, a Democrat from California, grew irritated with Republicans’ critiques of the legislation.

“Are you here for our kids? Or are you here for the killers? Because if you were here for the kids, you would do all you could to As the next school shooting that’s going to happen in America,” Swalwell said.

As lawmakers’ debate over the legislation passed the eight-hour mark, multiple people were shot during a funeral in Racine, Wisconsin.

“As we sit here, and as we fiddle, Rome burns. As our house burns downs, while Rome burns, I for one will not accept it,” Lee said, informing the committee of the Racine shooting, the details of which were unknown at the time of the hearing.

The lengthy congressional hearing wrapped up just as President Joe Biden began his prime-time address in which the president pushed for Congress to pass gun control legislation.

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Don Holloway/CC BY 2.0

An 18-year-old armed with a semi-automatic rifle killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School, the deadliest in a recent slew of mass shootings.