President Biden said he had reached the limit of his powers to act alone on gun violence, and needed Congress to respond. Republicans said they had already done all they were willing to do.
March 29, 2023, 7:48 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON — The mass shooting at a Christian elementary school in Nashville this week has generated a broad shrugging of the shoulders in Washington, from President Biden to Republicans in Congress, who seemed to agree on little other than that there was nothing left for them to do to counter the continuing toll of gun violence across the country.
But while President Biden’s stark admission on Tuesday that he could do no more on his own to tackle the issue was a statement of fact that aimed to put the burden on Congress to send him legislation, like the ban on assault weapons he has repeatedly championed, Republicans’ expressions of helplessness reflected an unwillingness, rather than an inability, to act.
Their answer to Mr. Biden’s plea was as blunt as it was swift, as lawmaker after Republican lawmaker made it clear that they had no intention of considering any additional gun safety measures.
“We’re not going to fix it,” Representative Tim Burchett, Republican of Tennessee, told reporters on the steps of the Capitol just hours after the shooting that killed three children and three adults in his home state. “Criminals are going to be criminals.”
Mr. Burchett said he saw no “real role” for Congress to play in reducing gun violence, and volunteered that his solution to the issue of protecting his family was to home-school his children.
Likewise, Senator Mike Rounds, Republican of South Dakota, said Congress had done enough.
“When we start talking about bans or challenging the Second Amendment, the things that have already been done have gone about as far as we’re going with gun control,” Mr. Rounds told CNN.
Last year, Congress passed a narrow, bipartisan compromise that enhanced background checks to give authorities time to examine the juvenile and mental health records of any prospective gun buyer under the age of 21, and a provision that for the first time extended a prohibition on domestic abusers having guns to dating partners.
The bill was the first major gun control legislation that Congress had passed in decades, but it addressed only a small set of issues designed to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.
At the time, Republicans like Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, noted that supporting the measure was necessary to win back suburban voters, who broadly support some changes to the nation’s gun laws. But even then, proponents conceded that the bill did not signify a political shift on gun restrictions; rather, it was a measure that went precisely as far as Republicans were willing go in strengthening gun laws, and one pushed through only by a fleeting political coalition that would soon dissipate.
Several of those Republican supporters have since retired, and the House is now in the hands of G.O.P. leaders who have no intention of allowing gun safety legislation to reach the floor.
“Gun violence is uniquely an American problem because of lawmakers who refuse to act proactively to prevent it,” said Christian Heyne, the vice president for policy at the Brady: United Against Gun Violence organization, who noted that House Republicans this week had originally scheduled a committee vote to weaken the government’s authority to keep short-barreled rifles off the streets. “Our lawmakers should be working to strengthen our gun laws, not weaken them,” he said.
But even the Republicans who championed the law enacted last summer showed no desire to take any further action.
Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, who served as the lead Republican negotiator on that bill, dismissed Mr. Biden’s calls for banning assault weapons as a set of “tired talking points.”
“I want to see the bill we just passed get implemented,” he said. One of the provisions of that bill provided funding for states to enact so-called red-flag laws that allow authorities to temporarily confiscate guns from people deemed to be dangerous. But Tennessee does not have a red flag law, and would not benefit from federal funds to implement a law that Republican state lawmakers are not willing to consider.
“I don’t think there’s any appetite,” Senator Cynthia Lummis, Republican of Wyoming, said flatly of her party’s willingness to take on gun control legislation. Ms. Lummis voted against the bipartisan measure that Congress passed last summer, along with all but 15 of her G.O.P. colleagues.
The intransigence of Republicans on the issue of guns was deeply frustrating, if not surprising, to Democrats, who pointed out that polls show that a vast majority of voters support some toughening of the nation’s laws, such as adding universal background checks.
“We’ve got too many politicians in this town who work for the gun lobby,” said Senator Raphael Warnock, Democrat of Georgia. “The people need some public servants who actually work for them.”
Mr. Warnock said he had been on a flight to Washington sitting next to a Republican colleague when the news of the Nashville shooting interrupted their conversation, and that they had reflected on the “human toll” of the tragedy.
“I’m still hoping against hope that somehow my colleagues will find enough courage to put the survival of five-year-olds and nine-year-olds ahead of their perceived political advantage,” Mr. Warnock added.
Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, who has often encouraged his colleagues to take a decades-long view of progress on the issue of guns, vented on Twitter about Republicans like House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who refused to answer any questions about the shooting.
“Why seek leadership if you aren’t willing to lead?” Mr. Murphy tweeted. “Burying your head in the sand and hoping the carnage stops isn’t going to work.”
At the same time, some Republicans who did speak out tried to turn away from any discussion of guns by seeking a different culprit for the tragedy. After the mass shooting last year at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two teachers were killed, Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, said that the issue was one of a security failure, and that the answer was for armed agents to be stationed at schools.
In this case, many right-wing Republicans, who have made opposition to transgender health care and rights a focus of their social agenda, sought to shift the focus by seizing on an assertion by law enforcement authorities that the assailant in Nashville had been transgender.
Senator J.D. Vance, Republican of Ohio, said on Twitter that the tragedy suggested that “giving into these ideas” about accepting transgender individuals was “dangerous.”
After Karine Jeane-Pierre, the White House press secretary, criticized congressional Republicans for their inaction on guns, Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, pointedly made reference to the issue of the shooter’s gender on Twitter, posting a message that, “it doesn’t get much lower than blaming Republicans in Congress for a transgender killer who targeted a Christian school.”
In a statement, the Human Rights Campaign said that while all the facts of the shooting were not yet known, “we do know that every study available shows that transgender and nonbinary people are much more likely to be the victims of violence, rather than the perpetrator of it.”
Even as Republicans made it clear there was no avenue to passing more gun safety legislation, the Senate Chaplain, Barry Black, made an unusually urgent plea for action, praying aloud to “deliver our senators from the paralysis of analysis that waits for the miraculous.”
“When babies die at a church school, it is time for us to move beyond thoughts and prayers,” the chaplain said in his opening prayer on Tuesday. “Remind our lawmakers of the words of Edmund Burke: ‘All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.’”
Luke Broadwater contributed reporting.