WASHINGTON – In the shadow of another mass shooting in America, the House Judiciary Committee met Thursday to debate the some of the most sweeping gun-control measures considered by Congress in decades.
House Democrats are pushing the new legislation, dubbed the “Protecting Our Kids Act”, after 19 children and two adults were killed last week in a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school. That mass shooting came a week after 10 Black people were killed in a racist mass shooting in a Buffalo grocery store. Both shooters were 18 years old.
And on Wednesday evening, there was a mass shooting in a Tulsa, Oklahoma medical center, where four people were killed.
Republicans argued Thursday it was too soon to act.
Democrats have “rushed” to move a gun-control package “in what seems more like political theater than a real attempt at improving public safety,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, of Ohio, the top Republican on the Judiciary committee.
He pointed out that because Democrats control the House, they can pass anything with their majority. But whatever they pass in the House will almost certainly be blocked by Republicans in the narrowly divided Senate.
Democrats argued that Congress has waited too long to act, with 311,000 students experiencing gun violence since the Columbine mass shooting in 1999, according to statistics from The Washington Post.
House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, DN.Y., said it has beenyears since large mass shootings in schools: 23 since Columbine; 15 since Virginia Tech; 10 since Sandy Hook; and four since Parkland.
“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,” Nadler said., referring to Uvalde. “Who knows how long’til the next one? My friends, what the hell are you waiting for?”
What Democrats want
In a package of six bills being debated Thursday, Democrats want to ban what they described as “weapons of war.”
Their legislation would:
Raise the minimum age to buy semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21.
Ban high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Bar the sales of “ghost gun” kits without a background check or serial numbers stamped on the parts.
Increase penalties for illegal “straw purchases” of guns.
Require gun owners to safely store their weapons, especially when children are present.
A closer look: Have to be 21 to buy a semi-automatic rifle? Uvalde has House pushing a minimum age increase from 18
The legislation, HR 7910, is decades in the making and a “combination of humanity, courage, decency and action,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson, D-Texas.
If Congress can’t pass this package of bills after 23 years of mass shootings in schools, she said. “Shame on us! We can move legislation now.”
Republicans say the proposed measures are an attack on the Second Amendment.
“Democrats are always fixated on curtailing the rights of law-abiding citizens, rather than trying to understand why this evil is happening,” Jordan said. “Until we figure out the ‘why,’ we will always mourn losses without fixing the problem.”
Democrats say their measures are widely supported by the American public and they won’t back down until they pass.
“Time after time, you have put your right to kill over our right to live,” Rep Mondaire Jones, DN.Y., said to his Republican colleagues.
A passionate debate
Tail. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., Said the Uvalde shooting was “beyond a tragedy,” but he disagreed with the Democratic package of bills.
The idea that disarming Americans, who lawfully and legally own guns, will produce a safer country is “simply not true,” he said.
Jordan accused Democrats of trying to dramatically change the country, which prompted a strong retort from Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif.
“If trying to make sure that no more kids are put in the ground with a Superman coffin means dramatically changing the country, guilty. That’s why we’re here,” Swalwell said. “Why aren’t you trying to dramatically change the number of dead kids going into the ground, Mr. Jordan?”
Swalwell then asked a question more generally to fellow committee members: “Who are you here for – the kids or the killers?”
Comments from Jones and Swalwell prompted a passionate response from Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas.
“I don’t think it’s very effective for children to have people on the other side of the island come in and accuse Republicans of being complicit in murder,” Gohmert said.
The idea that Republicans support the gunman “is an outrage,” he said. “How dare you! You think we don’t have hearts?”
Republicans oppose the legislation because they think Democrats have bad ideas, not because they support murderers, he said.
Gohmert pointed to high murder rates in Democratic-led cities, including Philadelphia, prompting a response from Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Penna.
Pennsylvania’s Republican-led legislature for decades has blocked city leadership from passing the type of gun-safety laws now being considered by the Judiciary Committee, she said.
“We are not helpless here. We can change this,” she said. “We can pass gun violence prevention laws that are constitutional and save lives. All it takes is political courage – a willingness to put American lives above gunmaker profits.”
Scanlon said the legislation before the House Judiciary Committee is not about being pro-gun or anti-gun.
“It’s about desperately needing to stop gun violence,” she said.
Violence in America: Why do mass shootings keep happening? Because this is what we’ve allowed America to become.
What Republicans want
Tail. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., Pushed for fewer restrictions, not more.
He advocated for his “Safe Students Act” – a reboot of legislation first introduced by then-Rep. Ron Paul, R-Ky., In 2007 that would repeal the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990.
The act would make it easier for school boards, state and local governments to set their own firearms policies – such as arming teachers.
“Banks, churches, sports stadiums and many of my colleagues in Congress are protected with firearms,” Massie said. “Yet children inside the classroom are too frequently left vulnerable.”
Tail. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, was one of many GOP members who said the mental health crisis should be addressed more and teachers should be better trained to spot troubled students who might carry out mass shootings.
Biggs called for more retired military and police to protect schools and deter people from “committing heinous crimes” in schools.
“Do not insult Americans by advocating to arm teachers and guidance counselors and librarians, when many of our schools don’t have enough money to hire guidance counselors or librarians or enough teachers,” Scanlon said.
Texas school lockdown under review: First public lockdown notice was 12 minutes after shots fired
What’s likely to pass
Democrats are expected to move the package of bills to the House floor for a vote late next week.
The House will also vote on separate bills from lawmakers who have experienced gun violence: a “red flag” bill from Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga., Whose son was a victim of gun violence a decade ago; a bill that would allow states to enact their own red flag laws from Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Calif., Whose sister used a gun to kill herself.
Red flag measures allow police or family members to petition a court to issue extreme risk protection orders authorizing them to temporarily confiscate firearms from a person who may present a danger to others or themselves.
All the bills are expected to pass the House because of the Democratic majority, but are unlikely to pass the Senate, where Republicans can block gun legislation and have indicated they will not support major gun reform.
Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Are leading a bipartisan group of senators in negotiations on a narrower gun-control package than House Democrats.
The senators’ plans would focus on red-flag laws, mental health and school safety.
Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Said the Senate would start debating the bills when lawmakers return from recess next week.
Candy Woodall is a Congress reporter for USA TODAY. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mass shootings prompt debate in House hearing on gun-control bills