Washington — In an emotionally charged hearing that has at times devolved into partisan bickering, the House Judiciary Committee is meeting Thursday to consider a package of bills that would harden the nation’s gun laws as lawmakers search for a legislative solution to a pair of mass shootings in a 10-day span that shocked the nation.
The Democratic-led panel is expected to advance the legislation, called the “Protecting Our Kids Act,” with action from the full House coming as soon as next week. But the package faces steep odds of passing the Senate, where Democrats and Republicans each control 50 seats and bills require 60 votes to advance.
A bipartisan group of senators has been engaged in negotiations this week to find common ground on measures to curb gun violence, and some members participating in the talks have expressed optimism about reaching consensus on a proposal that would garner support from Republicans and Democrats alike.
But Democrats in the House insist they must act swiftly to respond to the latest mass shootings, and the House Judiciary Committee interrupted a two-week congressional recess to mount the first attempt at legislative action following the devastating massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, which left 19 students and two teachers dead.
The shooting in Uvalde came 10 days after 10 people were killed by a racist gunman at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York. On the eve of the Judiciary Committee’s hearing, four people were fatally shot at a medical center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The legislation under consideration by the House panel is a package of eight bills that, among other plans, would raise the minimum purchasing age for semiautomatic rifles from 18 to 21; bar large-capacity magazines; incentivize safe firearm storage and establish requirements regulating storage of guns on residential premises; and build on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ regulatory ban on bump stocks, which allow semiautomatic rifles to fire more rapidly.
“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 and Santa Fe and the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. It has been three years since El Paso, 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 been 24 hours since the last mass shooting, and who knows how long until the next one,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, a Democrat from New York.
“Too soon?” he continued. “My friend, what the hell are you waiting for?”
Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the committee, chastised Democrats for rushing to take up the package, calling it “regretful” and an act of “political theater.”
“Protecting children is not a Republican or Democrat issue,” he said. “This is not a real attempt, in my judgment, to find solutions.”
Emotions ran high throughout the hearing, underscoring the fierce partisan divisions on the issue of gun control and difficulties Congress has encountered in prior unsuccessful attempts to pass legislation to address gun violence.
Rep. Greg Steube, a Florida Republican, appeared remotely and displayed his numerous handguns during the hearing to argue those firearms would be banned under Democrats’ proposal because of their magazine capacities. On the opposing side, Rep. Lucy McBath, a Georgia Democrat, recalled losing her 17-year-old son to gun violence in 2012 and asked, “Do we as a nation have the God given right to live free from this scourge of gun violence, of senseless suffering, of death and despair?”
Democrats blamed Republicans for failing to feel a sense of urgency to protect young lives, while Republicans accused Democrats of wanting to take away Americans’ Second Amendment rights.
“There’s a willingness to just ram through this package and the answer is, ‘We don’t have any patience for you if you’re objecting.’ The voices are raised, the accusations are made, Republicans are complicit,” GOP Rep. Dan Bishop of North Carolina said. “I can tell you this and let me be clear: You are not going to bully your way into stripping Americans of fundamental rights.”
Democratic Rep. Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania followed: “I’m stunned by some of the words that we’re hearing on the other side of the aisle. Where is their outrage over the slaughter of 19 fourth graders and their two teachers? Why don’t they feel an urgency to do something?”
While Democrats favor plans to make it more difficult to obtain firearms and restrict access to high-capacity magazines, Republicans instead believe efforts should be focused on bolstering mental health resources and making schools more secure, including by expanding the ranks of school resource officers.
President Biden, meanwhile, has repeatedly urged Congress to send to his desk legislation stalled in the Senate that strengthens background checks and has called on lawmakers to reinstate the assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004.