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  • Writer's pictureMichael McAuliff

Domestic Terror and Gun Bills Blocked In Senate

With the Senate getting out of town for a 10-day Memorial Day break, it notched another day failing to react to horror.

Student protesters gathered in front of the U.S. Capitol, where the flags remain lowered to half staff after the Uvlade, Texas, and Buffalo shootings.

There is often plenty of blame to go around in the nation's legislative body, but this time it is entirely on Republicans, and based primarily on what some folks in their base claim about the Biden administration.

The horror Congress was aiming to address was the slaughter of 10 people shopping at a grocery store in Buffalo, allegedly by an 18-year-old gunman who posted white supremacist explanations for his murderous rampage online.

Lawmakers had a ready, bipartisan solution at hand that would focus the government's attention a little better on violent, homegrown racists -- the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, which passed the House during the Trump administration on a voice vote. That means no Republicans objected to it. But the same bill, which had added three GOP cosponsors early in this session of Congress, lost nearly all Republican support earlier this month when it passed the House.

Most Republicans complained that they didn't trust the Biden administration, and cited the claims that the Department of Justice was targeting parents who were angry about COVID policies in schools. Attorney General Merrick Garland testified to Congress that the DOJ was only interested in parents who were making violent threats, but that hasn't mattered.

Even the three GOP cosponsors voted against their bill. Among their complaints was that the House Rules Committee added language, at the request of civil libertarians, to specify the bill does not “authorize the infringement or violation of any right protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States or an applicable provision of Federal law.” The committee also added the requirement for the federal government to report to Congress. Otherwise, the bill was the same, and the changes would seem to protect angry parents' right to complain to school boards. But that's not how the Republican lawmakers decided to see it.

The expressed intent of the bill is to beef up domestic terrorism units at DOJ, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, which would then assist with training local law enforcement, and try to identify white separatists in the military and police forces.

"The bill is so important, because the mass shooting in Buffalo was an act of domestic terrorism. We need to call it what it is: Domestic terrorism," said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. "It was terrorism that fed off the poison of conspiracy theories like white replacement theory, terrorism that left 10 people dead, and a community forever torn asunder.

"This bill will give the government the tools to monitor, find, and arrest these evil actors before they have a chance to inflict violence on their communities," he said.

The Senate blocked even starting to debate the bill Thursday on a strictly party-line 47 to 47 vote.

That vote also blocked any chance of the Senate moving quickly to deal with this week's latest horror -- the killings of 21 kids and teachers in Uvalde, Texas.

Schumer had pledged to let senators offer gun amendments if Republicans had been willing to start work on the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act. Republicans were not willing.

Democrats had hoped to respond to Uvalde by passing two other measures that passed the House already -- a bill to enhance background checks and one to close the so-called Charleston loophole that allowed a killer to get a gun in 2015 before opening fire in a Black church.

Both those bills remain on the Senate calendar, and Democrats insisted there was still a chance to find some deal with Republicans to pass some version of them, or perhaps to pass a red flag law to better keep weapons out of the hands of people who are mentally ill and violent.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn), who has been leading that effort, told hundreds of people at an anti-gun violence rally outside the Capitol before the vote that he realized chances of success were slim.

"We're going to extend a hand in partnership to those who have been sitting on the sidelines, to those who have chosen to side with the gun lobby, and we are going to offer them a seat at the table," Murphy said. "Today, we will be engaged in bipartisan conversations to try to find a path forward to make our streets safer, to make our schools safer. And our goal and our hope and our belief is that we can find that common ground."

Failing that, he said, Democrats would force votes on the existing bills, and take those results the voters in November.

"We're putting people on the record. One way or the other, we're gonna have a debate here," Murphy said. "We're gonna force people to tell America which side they are on. So we are going to work our tails off to try to get that compromise, but we are not going away. We are not being silent."

Signs of finding agreement inside the Capitol were not encouraging.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), said he was talking to fellow Republicans to revive the enhanced background check bill he's supported since 2013 after the the Sandy Hook shooting. He hasn't found the other nine Republicans it would take to break a filibuster.

"I couldn't count 60 at this point, but I hope we'll get there," Toomey said.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters on his way into a meeting with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that lawmakers were talking. Cornyn had helped pass a modest gun safety law after a former member of the Air Force killed 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The gunman bought a weapon even though he was a domestic abuser who was convicted in a court martial -- a person legally barred from buying a gun. He was able to get one because the Air Force didn't send his information to the background check system. Cornyn's bill fixed that.

Some Republicans, including Cornyn, have floated the idea of supporting some sort of red flag law. But he said the issues with the latest Texas massacre are difficult. McConnell later told reporters that Cornyn would be meeting with Democrats "who are interested in getting a bipartisan solution and come up with a proposal, if possible, that's crafted to meet this particular problem."

"I believe in the process, collectively, Republicans and Democrats working together to save lives going forward," Cornyn said, but added, "This is an even more complicated situation. I'm afraid this young man was a ticking time bomb. But I'm interested in trying to figure out what it is we might be able to do that would make that kind of event less likely in the future. Right now, we're still getting information from the investigators.”

Asked specifically if making it harder for people with mental health problems to get guns was one of the options he was considering, Cornyn said, "I'm not taking anything off the table except for denying people their constitutional rights who are law-abiding citizens."

And doing anything about those who are not law-abiding citizens -- or not doing anything -- will have to wait until after Congress takes another recess.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told reporters on his way out that he, at least was hopeful. "The sense of urgency is palpable," Blumenthal said.


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