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Near-Term Changes to Gun Laws Unlikely in Wake of Texas School Shooting

In this image from Senate Television, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, speak on the Senate floor, May 25, 2022 at the Capitol in Washington.
In this image from Senate Television, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, speak on the Senate floor, May 25, 2022 at the Capitol in Washington.

On Wednesday, less than 24 hours after a teenage gunman massacred 19 children and two teachers and left others severely wounded inside an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he would not seek a vote on two gun control measures that have passed the House of Representatives.

Schumer suggested there was little point in bringing up the measures because Senate Republicans would use the chamber's filibuster rule to prevent them from coming to a final vote. He also suggested that supporters of stricter gun laws might have to wait until the midterm elections in November, saying, "Americans can cast their vote in November for senators or members of Congress that reflect how he or she stands with guns with this issue."

Later in the day, however, after furious blowback on social media from supporters of stricter controls on firearms, the majority leader returned to the Senate floor with a different message: "Let me be clear. We are going to vote on gun legislation."

It remained unclear, however, when such a vote would take place and how it would change the status quo. There have been more than 200 mass shootings in the U.S. since the beginning of 2022.

Complicated gun politics

Schumer's preemptive concession that it would be impossible to pass the two bills, which call for background checks on gun buyers, illustrates the difficulty of getting gun control measures through Congress.

His rapid turnaround reflects the support for stricter background checks that runs broad and deep through American public opinion.

An April 2021 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 81% of American adults, including 71% of Republicans, believe the federal background check requirement should be extended to cover guns sold privately and guns sold at gun shows.

Filibuster rule blocks bills

The two background check bills passed the House in early 2021 with overwhelming support from the body's Democratic majority and, in each case, a small number of Republican votes.

Though similar bills were introduced in the Senate in March 2021, neither has made any progress toward a floor vote. That is primarily because of the Senate's filibuster rule, which requires 60 of 100 senators to agree to end debate on a matter and put it to a final vote.

The Democrats and Republicans hold 50 seats each, and no 10 Republicans are willing to vote to end debate on either measure. The Democrats have control of the Senate only because its rules allow Vice President Kamala Harris, a Democrat, to cast the deciding vote when it is deadlocked at 50-50.

That one extra vote does no good in overcoming the filibuster's 60-vote requirement.

Possible bipartisan compromise

In a fiery speech on the Senate floor Wednesday morning, Schumer excoriated his Republican colleagues for what he characterized as their "obeisance" to the National Rifle Association, a gun rights lobbying organization that gives millions of dollars in political donations to members of Congress.

Despite his harsh rhetoric, Schumer held out the possibility that ongoing bipartisan discussions might result in some sort of gun control measure coming to the floor with votes available from both parties.

However, he said, "I think it's a slim prospect. Very slim. All too slim. We've been burnt so many times before. But this is so important. … We must pursue action and even ask Republicans to join us again."

McConnell speaks

After Schumer spoke Wednesday morning, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took the floor and, in remarks that lasted less than four minutes, said, "Our country is sickened and outraged by the senseless evil that struck Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, yesterday."

McConnell described some of the victims and offered prayers for the injured and the families of the dead, saying, "Most of all, the entire nation's hearts are broken for the victims and their families. Words simply fail."

McConnell did not mention that a firearm was used in the massacre, and he did not respond to Schumer's criticism of Republicans for blocking the background check bills.

He also was silent on prospects for a bipartisan agreement to reduce gun violence.

Prospects of compromise

On Tuesday, a furious Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut took the Senate floor to beg his Republican colleagues to compromise on guns.

"I know I have Republican partners," he said. "I know there's 10 Republicans that will vote for something under the right circumstances, with the right leadership."

He added, "I don't understand why people here think we are powerless. … I am so willing to bend over backwards to find compromise."

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois was less optimistic, however, telling Politico, "We can't budge the Republicans an inch on this issue of gun safety."

Other Republicans call for caution

Some Senate Republicans called for a cautious reaction to the shooting in Texas, arguing it would be a mistake to restrict the rights of Americans to own and carry firearms.

"You see Democrats and a lot of folks in the media whose immediate solution is to try to restrict the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens," Texas Senator Ted Cruz told reporters. "That doesn't work. It's not effective. It doesn't prevent crime. We know what does prevent crime is going after felons and fugitives and those with serious mental illness."

Cruz also called for more armed law enforcement officers on school grounds.

Others argued that new laws wouldn't stop a determined mass shooter.

In an interview with HuffPost, Senator Steve Daines, a Montana Republican, said that he had studied mass shootings going back to the 1999 attack at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in which 12 students were killed.

"You go back and look at these horrible, evil perpetrators — either the existing laws were broken and in most cases the proposed laws would not have stopped the violence," he said.

Republican measure proposed

On Wednesday afternoon, Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin sought unanimous consent in the Senate to pass a law that would require the federal government to provide a "clearinghouse" that makes "best practices" for school security available to administrators across the country.

That clearinghouse already exists. The law, if passed, would mandate that the clearinghouse continue to be available, though it did not appear in danger of being discontinued.

On the Senate floor, Schumer said he would object to the unanimous consent request.

"What the American people want is real solutions to our nation's gun violence epidemic," he said. "We've had too many moments of silence, too many 'thoughts and prayers.' Americans are sick of it. Many in this chamber are sick of it."