Minnesota congressional members and state leaders said Wednesday they were heartbroken by the latest mass shooting that left 19 Texas elementary school students and two teachers dead. But the political divide in their responses suggested it's unlikely that their grief will translate into policy changes.
While Democrats called for legislation such as expanded background checks, Republicans who for years have blocked such measures condemned the violence and emphasized the need for mental health support.
"I'm struggling because I can't force my Republican colleagues to do the right thing here," Democratic Sen. Tina Smith said. "And yet they have the power to stop me from doing the right thing. And that is intensely frustrating."
Despite Democrats holding narrow control of Congress, the odds of the Senate passing gun legislation remains difficult in the aftermath of the massacre in Uvalde, Texas. To break an expected filibuster, 10 Republicans would likely have to join every Democrat in the chamber.
Minnesota's Republican Congress members — Reps. Tom Emmer, Michelle Fischbach and Pete Stauber — said they were heartbroken and horrified by the tragedy.
"Praying for the entire Robb Elementary community and the families of those lost in today's senseless act of violence," Emmer tweeted.
"Every child should be safe in their homes and schools. This was pure evil. The families of these innocent victims are in our prayers," posted Stauber.
Fischbach stressed that no child or parent should live in fear about the safety of their school. A spokesperson noted that Fischbach cosponsored legislation earlier this year to help fund police officers assigned to schools.
Social media posts and statements from Democratic members of Minnesota's congressional delegation generally centered on a common theme: the desire to move beyond thoughts and prayers to pass gun control legislation.
Rep. Betty McCollum in a statement called for a ban on "all weapons of mass murder." Rep. Dean Phillips offered a similar message, tweeting "[D]o not tell me your AR15 is worth more than another 14 children's lives."
A spokesperson for Rep. Angie Craig said she was encouraging the Senate to take up the gun bills the House passed, which include expanding background checks for gun purchases. However, Smith said there didn't appear to be a Republican senator open to debating gun safety legislation such as criminal background checks.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar stressed the need for universal background checks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday with the nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. She asked the nominee, Steve Dettelbach, about the proliferation of devices that allow semiautomatic guns to operate like automatic firearms.
Minn. DFL Gov. Tim Walz said the shooting triggered grief and survivors' guilt as he went into his 15-year-old son's room to wake him up before school.
"I can't help but think about, what do those empty beds look like?" he said Wednesday. "This does not happen in all countries, this does not happen. And I'm not interested in putting blame, I'm interested in finding a solution. And if this is a tweet with thoughts and prayers, we have failed."
Minnesotans "overwhelmingly support" gun control legislation that DFL legislators have worked to pass in recent years, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said in a statement, "But the Republican majority in the Minnesota Senate has consistently blocked progress on common-sense gun violence prevention measures."
"My sincere hope is to work with a DFL-led Senate next year so we can finally get these two policy provisions across the finish line," Hortman said. "Minnesotans deserve to be safe at school, at work, at home and in their communities."
Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, said in a statement that his "heart is with the victims and the families of this tragedy" and noted the mental health bill that legislators passed in the final minutes of this year's legislative session.
"Safe communities, including schools, should be available to everyone," he said. "That's why we just passed major legislation to address mental health needs in our state, including school-based support, to prevent crisis situations and get help to those who need it."
Gun rights are a core concern for Minnesota Republicans. GOP legislators in 2019 successfully blocked expanded criminal background checks and a "red flag" law that would have allowed law enforcement to temporarily confiscate firearms from people deemed a danger to themselves or others.
Former state Sen. Scott Jensen, the GOP-endorsed gubernatorial candidate, apologized to delegates at this month's party convention for supporting universal background check legislation when he was a legislator.
"I put myself on the wrong side of the gun issue," Jensen said of his time in the Senate.
Jensen told the convention crowd that he has since been a passionate supporter of bills backed by the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, including a "stand your ground" measure to expand Minnesotans' rights and a bill that would remove the expiration date on permits to carry so they would be valid for the lifetime of the permit holder. A permit to carry a pistol currently expires after five years.
There seems to be an increased effort in Minnesota and other states to pass "stand your ground" laws and various measures loosening gun restrictions, said Molly Leutz, of the gun control advocacy organization Minnesota Moms Demand Action.
She said she watched hope and energy build among advocates when the DFL majority in the Minnesota House passed some gun control measures a couple years ago, before opposition from Senate Republicans killed the bills. Then COVID-19 hit and the momentum for gun control appeared to wane.
"It was hugely disappointing, to be perfectly honest, to see so little traction and even conversation about gun violence prevention in the Legislature this year," said Leutz, who said she is now looking for Congress to act.
The Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus condemned gun control groups' responses to the mass shooting, calling them "shameful and exploitative."
"We have already seen reactionary pleas for legislation or restrictions well before the facts of the situation have come in," the Second Amendment-focused group said in a statement. "We refuse to join in the politicization of the pain and loss suffered by victims and survivors in the furtherance of a political agenda or to capitalize on their pain for financial gain."
Staff writers Hunter Woodall and Stephen Montemayor contributed to this report.