In the wake of Tuesday’s massacre of 19 children and two adults in Uvalde, Texas there’s been a palpable change in the air at the U.S. Capitol.
A decade ago, after 20 children were slaughtered by a gunman in Newtown, Connecticut or even five years ago, when House Republicans and Capitol Police officers were attacked by a gunman during a baseball practice, the common refrain from the GOP was “it’s too soon to talk policy.” These days, most Republicans are eager to defend guns – no matter the most recent body count or how warm and tiny those bodies are.
“It's heartbreaking to watch. There are no words to adequately comfort parents, and so I don't try at this point,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) tells a scrum of reporters at the Capitol, describing his now routine mass shooting routine. “I usually wait before really talking about the policy ramifications of it…”
“It’s been a decade since Newtown,” I interject. “I covered that. I’ve cried with those families, so...”
“What about it though?” the senator cuts me off.
“It’s been a decade with no change,” another reporter seamlessly interjects.
“Because the principle hasn't changed. The second amendment hasn't changed. The constitutional right hasn't changed,” Cramer matter-of-factly replies. “The vast, vast, vast, vast, vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding citizens. We still are the freest country in the world. So none of that has changed in that decade.”
What has changed in that decade is the number of mass shootings, along with the tragic uptick in body counts and carnage, have steadily risen, according to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive. It also seems Americans have now become desensitized to the uniquely American scourge of gun violence.
Many Americans have grown accustomed to mass shootings, though not all.
“There should be 50 Republicans today who are willing to pass basic gun safety legislation,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) tells Raw Story after voting on the Senate floor, “We should have a vote of 100 to zero to pass sensible gun legislation that is supported by more than 90% of Americans. If we can't do that, then Democrats need to get this done on their own. And to do that, we're going to have to get rid of the filibuster.”
Warren’s not alone.
“This is a moral abomination, and I will never give up on this,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) tells Raw Story while walking under the Capitol rotunda.
Like Sen. Warren, Schatz is a progressive who supports filibuster reform, so a simple majority of U.S. senators – 51, as opposed to the current 60 – would be the final arbiters of federal policy. But today’s Senate is split 50-50, and pro-gun Democrats complicate the math.
“That feels, at least for the time being, unrealistic,” Schatz laments.
While Democrats have made huge gains in this ongoing debate – including capturing numerous suburban seats running pro-gun safety candidates – advocates know they’re years, if not decades, away from changing the national debate. That’s not good enough for Schatz or most Democrats.
“There is no time. Kids are being slaughtered, and there’s no time. We can’t have any tolerance for this taking 10 years to move its way through our political system,” Schatz exclaims, half in disbelief there’s even a debate at all. “We have to fix this now.”
Fix what? The more moderate handful of Republican senators still standing in Washington seem eager to negotiate around the edges.
“Background checks and updating our background check technology is something that I think is an appropriate federal responsibility,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) tells Raw Story as he’s about to vote on the Senate floor.
Romney is also open to so-called red flag laws, which enable family and friends to report loved ones to courts in the hopes of getting their guns confiscated. Other Republicans support the idea, too.
“Yes. I do,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) tells Raw Story as she heads into a hearing. “I hope we'll look at passing yellow – or red flag laws such as the state of Maine has with the involvement of a medical professional, the courts and due process.”
Still, other Republicans have seen new gun-control measures take root in their states in recent years, but they don’t necessarily want those local measures passed federally.
After the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland in 2018 – which came two years after the Pulse nightclub massacre – then-Gov. Rick Scott signed a gun-control measure that, among other things, raised the legal age to purchase a gun from 18 to 21, while also increasing mental health funding and banning so-called bump stocks.
Like most Republicans, now-Sen. Scott doesn’t think his state laws should become a federal mandate.
“I think most of the things you should be doing at the state [level],” Scott tells Raw Story as we walk through a Senate office building.
Still, Scott is open to some changes federally, including improving the federal government’s ability to assess potential threats and then disseminate that information to officials on the ground.
“I think we do need to have more threat assessment and more coordination,” Scott continues, “After Parkland happened, I was very vocal with the FBI, and they actually completely changed how they share information.”
As for Sen. Cramer from North Dakota, the Republican studied social work as an undergrad and is open to trying to improve mental health.
“I feel like we could do more to empower,” Cramer says, “whether it's professional therapists, family members, even with adult children, to have greater access to be able to intervene in their lives when their mental illness issues, when their addiction issues, when there are other signs.”
While none of those potential GOP proposals go far enough for Democrats, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) is willing to listen. He’s searching for any GOP partner willing to talk about gun reform. Murphy’s become, arguably, the Senate’s loudest advocate for gun control since his small constituents were shot at Sandy Hook.
While it doesn’t feel like it, Murphy says there’s been progress in the past decade, though most of it came from the ground level and not much has come out of today’s hyper-partisan Washington. And changing federal statutes remains the goal.
“You’ve seen a movement grow that’s substantial that didn’t exist before Sandy Hook,” Murphy tells Raw Story as we take an elevator to the Senate floor, “I think there’s a lot of good news to be told. I think there are a lot more state laws that are a lot more protective of life, since Sandy Hook, but we need a federal law. State laws can only offer so much protection.”
That’s why, just as he’s done for the past decade – ever since Connecticut families were forced to dig 20 tiny graves, along with six adult-sized ones – Murphy’s searching for GOP allies.
“I don’t want to overstate where we are. We’re not, like, sitting down at a table negotiating,” Murphy says, “We’re just having some preliminary conversations about where things stand.”