NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Partisan tensions flare among Texans in congressional gun hearing

Hundreds of handguns and rifles for sale at McBride’s Guns in Austin on April 20, 2021.
Jordan Vonderhaar
The Texas Tribune
Hundreds of handguns and rifles for sale at McBride’s Guns in Austin on April 20, 2021.

House Democrats are combining several gun policy bills into one large package known as the Protecting our Kids Act. Among the measures in the bill: raising the age to purchase semi-automatic weapons to 21; outlawing the sale, manufacture, transfer or possession of a large-capacity magazine; and creating tax breaks for purchasing proper gun storage equipment.

WASHINGTON — Emotions ran high among Texans at a U.S. House hearing addressing gun violence on Thursday, nine days after a gunman attacked an Uvalde elementary school, when the debate veered away from policy and into personal attacks and finger-pointing.

Democratic members delivered remarks in the hearing room with images of the children who died in Uvalde last week, and members from both parties blamed each other for the circumstances that led to the shooting.

“One young man pulled the trigger, but we all have failed them. America has failed them,” said U.S. Rep. Sylvia R. Garcia, a Houston Democrat. “Republicans are complicit in Uvalde, in [their] negligence and neglect to responsibly address comprehensive gun reform.”

She went on to blame the GOP for other massacres, in which the shooters were revealed to be white supremacists, homophobic and anti-immigrant.

“Americans are tired of their children dying. Americans are tired of being afraid to go into grocery stores, outdoor concerts and now hospitals?” said U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, an El Paso Democrat. “To my Republican colleagues: Look at Texas, a state that has tried it your way. There’s blood everywhere.”

An incensed Republican U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Tyler fought back against the accusation that his party was to blame.

“I don’t think that it’s very effective for the children to have people on the other side of the aisle come in and accuse Republicans of being complicit in murder and that we put our right to kill over others’ right to live,” he said, escalating into shouting at points during his remarks. “How dare you? You don’t think we have hearts?”

He went on to blame Democrats for gun violence in several major cities.

“Are you here for the murderers in Chicago? In Philadelphia and these other major cities because you’re wanting to do nationally what is being done by Democrats in those big cities?” he asked.

House Judiciary members convened Thursday in a rare recess session to debate legislation that is expected to go to the House floor next week, when members return to Washington.

House Democrats are combining several languishing gun control bills into one large package known as the Protecting our Kids Act.

Among the measures in the bill: raising the age to purchase semi-automatic weapons to 21; outlawing the sale, manufacture, transfer or possession of a large-capacity magazine; creating tax breaks for purchasing proper gun storage equipment; and codifying into law a Trump-era Justice Department ban on bump stocks.

“Why are we running away from the crux of the matter? Why are we running away from 19 dead children and two beloved teachers and her husband, who just died of a broken heart?” U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat, said as the committee debated the policies.

Even as the frequency of horrific mass shootings has increased over the years, a sense of hopelessness has pervaded Capitol Hill gun regulation proponents that any legislation can pass.

But the horror of 19 elementary schoolchildren and two teachers in Texas being slain — combined with what appears to be a racially motivated mass shooting in a Buffalo, N.Y., grocery store last month and another shooting in Tulsa on Wednesday that left three victims dead — unleashed an urgency among Democratic leadership in Congress and President Joe Biden to demonstrate momentum on the issue.

Beyond the package of proposals heard in committee Thursday, U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer announced last week he would soon put a “red flag” law onto the House floor.

Red flag laws, which prior to the Uvalde murders had no viable path to passage in Congress, are statutes that allow a court to prevent individuals deemed to be a risk to themselves or others from owning firearms.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Wednesday that after those bills are addressed, she intends to bring legislation to the floor that will ban assault rifles.

On Thursday afternoon, Biden administration officials announced the president would deliver a national address Thursday evening on gun policy.

But the renewed attention to gun control doesn’t mean anything is certain to pass.

For many on Capitol Hill, memories are fresh of the similarly urgent but failed effort to pass background check laws in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Back then, the threat of a mostly Republican-backed filibuster killed that legislative effort. That bloc included both U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz.

It is unlikely at this point that any of the House measures will reach the 60-vote threshold to override a filibuster in the Senate, which has long been the highest barrier to clear gun regulation in the federal government.

Even so, there are a number of bipartisan conversations happening within the Senate, with the most prominent negotiations happening between Cornyn and U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut. The two have a history of working together on gun policy and are effectively serving as a bridge among partisans within a bitterly divided chamber.

Cornyn, who is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has emerged in recent years as the de facto Republican leader on this policy and he is closely aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“This is a sign to us that we need to do a lot more than we have done in the past,” Cornyn said earlier this week in Texas. “First and foremost is, keep guns out of the hands of people who are mentally ill or criminals. To me, that should be a point of consensus.”

According to the political newsletter Punchbowl News, Cornyn and Murphy are “negotiating on a more narrow gun-control package that focuses on state-based red flag programs, school safety and mental health programs.” There is some optimism that an agreement will come to pass when the Senate returns next week.

Meanwhile, back home in Texas, Republicans on the far right took note of Cornyn’s activity.

“Sen. John Cornyn has taken no time to use this most recent crisis in our state to betray law-abiding gun owners,” Republican political consultant Luke Macias said on his podcast.

Abby Livingston joined the Tribune in 2014 as the publication's first Washington Bureau Chief. Previously, she covered political campaigns, House leadership and Congress for Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper. A seventh-generation Texan, Abby graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. She grew up in Fort Worth and has appeared in an episode of "The Bold and The Beautiful." Abby pitched and produced political segments for CNN and worked as an editor for The Hotline, National Journal’s campaign tipsheet. Abby began her journalism career as a desk assistant at NBC News in Washington, working her way up to the political unit, where she researched stories for Nightly News, the Today Show and Meet the Press. In keeping with the Trib’s great history of hiring softball stars, Abby is a three-time MVP (the most in game history —Ed.) for The Bad News Babes, the women’s press softball team that takes on female members of Congress in the annual Congressional Women’s Softball breast cancer charity game.