WASHINGTON – A moment of silence on the House floor to honor the fallen. A news conference outside the Capitol held by angry Democratic lawmakers urging stronger gun control. Pushback from Republicans who say America’s latest mass shooting shouldn’t be politicized.
The response in Washington to the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history followed familiar patterns. While the actions of gunman Stephen Paddock have renewed debate about what Congress might do to limit similar carnage in the future — 59 killed, more than 500 injured in Las Vegas — there were no immediate signs this time would be different.
Minnesota’s Republican members of Congress did not want to talk about the issue. Reps. Erik Paulsen and Jason Lewis declined to comment for this story; Rep. Tom Emmer did not respond.
Democrats, meanwhile, jumped on an effort to ban the sale of so-called bump stocks, which Paddock used to dramatically increase the rate of fire on the guns he used to carry out the shooting.
Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken were among those to sign on Wednesday as cosponsors of a bill to prohibit the devices, which allow semi-automatic rifles to be modified to fire at the rate of illegal, fully automatic guns.
Several top Republicans in Congress have signaled they would be open to considering some version of a bump-stock ban. Several of Minnesota’s Democratic House members also said they’d support such a ban.
John Monson is the owner of Bill’s Gun Shop & Range, with two locations in the Twin Cities and a handful of others statewide. Monson said he doesn’t allow bump stocks on his shooting ranges around the metro because as the rate of firing increases, the ability to safely handle the gun decreases. The increased recoil makes it difficult for shooters to control the weapon, he said.
Monson said bump stocks were in vogue when they first came out, “but the novelty of the concept wore off because you couldn’t shoot the gun accurately — you could shoot it fast ... we decided these aren’t going to be safe on the range,” he said.
When he heard clips of the shooting, Monson speculated that Paddock was using a bump stock or similar device because there was a variation in the speed that seemed inconsistent with a fully automatic gun. But he said he has 35,000 people a month come through his five Minnesota gun shops and rarely gets questions about bump stocks.
“They’re just not that popular,” said Monson.
Arnzen Arms in Eden Prairie also said it doesn’t sell the devices.
Early Wednesday, House Democratics pleaded for stronger gun control laws at a news conference that included former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona, who was shot in 2011.
They voiced opposition to bills, which Speaker Paul Ryan recently pulled from consideration, that would have made it easier to buy gun silencers and carry concealed weapons. They want to establish a bipartisan committee to find solutions.
“How many more dead bodies will it take to wake up this Congress?” U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia asked. “Is there no number?”
Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum lamented that Lewis had approached Ryan about holding hearings to address gun control legislation, but was told there was no interest.
“There’s no appetite for it — there’s no prospects for it on the other side of the aisle,” McCollum said.
The dynamic is much the same in St. Paul, where Republican majorities in the state House and Senate have shown little willingness to consider stricter gun laws.
While there are a lot of responsible gun owners, McCollum said, Congress has to take some responsibility “not to weaken gun laws we already have [and] to figure out how to come together to reduce the amount of these extremely deadly weapons that are now killing our fellow citizens around the country.”
Thorny for Democrats
While Republicans have largely stayed on one side of the gun control debate, the issue has been thornier for Democrats. In Minnesota, the debate came up in the DFL race for governor this week, with two candidates — St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and state Rep. Erin Murphy — criticizing another, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz of southern Minnesota, for taking campaign contributions from the National Rifle Association.
Walz quickly said he would donate money he received from the NRA to a fund that benefits families of people who give their lives for the country. While one of only a few Democrats who has won backing from the NRA, Walz expressed support for more mental health funding, universal background checks for gun purchases and a ban on bump stocks.
In an interview, Walz said he believes the NRA has become extreme in recent years. But as a veteran and former chair of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, he said you can’t start conversations about gun control by alienating every gun owner. Walz said he wants to use his credibility with gun owners to pass stronger legislation with Republican support.
Blaming an outside advocacy group for not passing gun control laws is “fatalistic and [shows] a lack of leadership ... if you do not have the capacity to bridge the gap between all the parties involved, it’s very difficult to get anything done,” Walz said.
Meanwhile, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee began fundraising e-mails this week on behalf of about 60 lawmakers who it says are standing up to the NRA, including U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., and Franken.
Nolan acknowledged that it might not have been possible to prevent the Las Vegas attack. Paddock had no criminal history and he was able to legally buy 33 guns over the past year.
A ban on bump stocks “may not have prevented this from happening, but it certainly could have greatly diminished the volume of the killings that took place,” Nolan said. “At the end of the day, every life that we save and every injury that we prevent, that’s a step forward.”