One year ago, Sen. Chris Murphy sprang into action almost immediately after a gun massacre at an Orlando nightclub — accusing Congress of an “unconscionable deafening silence” and launching a 15-hour filibuster on the Senate floor.
But the gun-control advocate who once argued that lawmakers should put forward “legislative action within an hour of a shooting” was more circumspect on Wednesday after a shooting at a congressional baseball practice in the suburbs of Washington. One tragic incident, he acknowledged, won’t move the needle — even one that affected one of their own, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.).
“This is very personal. I mean, Steve is a friend of mine and frankly my time this morning has been dedicated just to making sure that my friends are OK,” Murphy said. “The way you talk certainly is affected by the fact that your priority is that the people you know are still alive.”
The Connecticut Democrat continued: “We’re beyond the place where Washington responds to mass shootings. I mean, we don’t. We don’t. After Orlando and Sandy Hook, that’s clearly not how people’s minds work here.”
The shooting early Wednesday on a sleepy suburban baseball field — injuring Scalise and at least four others — horrified Capitol Hill, which has cycled through repeated rounds of tense battles over gun policy after mass shootings in recent years.
But on Wednesday, the tone among even the most ardent proponents of stricter gun laws was dramatically different. In multiple interviews, several Democratic lawmakers urged that no, today was not the day to revive the dormant gun control debate. It was too soon, it hit too close to home — and lawmakers simply didn’t want to stand accused of politicizing a shooting that injured a colleague and friend.
“We don’t know the facts,” pointed out Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who served as his state’s governor during the Virginia Tech shootings a decade ago.
“You know, today is not the day,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who helped steer the debate over background checks as Judiciary Committee chairman in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. “People know my record … but today is not the day for that. I’m praying for the victims. I’m praying for the police officers.”
“Today we need to focus on what happened and our prayers have to be with the injured,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). “We can talk about other issues in the future.”
Congressional Democrats have taken notably sharper and aggressive tactics in recent years when it comes to advocating for tougher gun laws. The Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando spurred the most visible action — not only Murphy’s filibuster but a sit-in led by House Democrats in the chamber that lasted more than 25 hours and captured national attention.
But Democratic lawmakers tiptoed around the gun issue on Wednesday. Notably, several Democrats asked to speak without attribution for fear of being seen as insensitive so soon after one of their colleagues was shot. They acknowledged privately that if the shooting of another colleague — former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) — and the Newtown massacre didn’t move the dial, this won’t either.
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat and another advocate of stricter gun laws, also spoke about a “feeling of resignation” for his party in the gun debate.
“Until there’s significant changes around the country or within Congress, we know each other’s positions and we know they don’t change,” Durbin said. “There’s a fatigue. We know each other’s arguments. We know what’s going to happen.”
Democrats say they’re not abandoning their push for tougher gun laws, but they didn’t think it was appropriate to talk about it so quickly after Wednesday’s shooting, which occurred around 7 a.m. during the GOP lawmakers’ practice in advance of the annual congressional baseball game Thursday.
“I think that both sides of the aisle are going to be pretty disciplined on just focusing on [the victims] today,” Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.) said. “And then tomorrow we’ll probably, hopefully respectfully, get back to the debates of what kind of policies we should have.”
Even lawmakers who have seen an uptick in death threats against them recently like Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) weren’t ready to revive the gun debate. Green has been the target of lynching threats after calling for Trump’s impeachment.
“I think these are issues that I would feel more comfortable discussing a little bit more removed from what happened today,” he told reporters following a briefing for House lawmakers on Wednesday’s shooting. “I don’t want someone to think that I’m seizing on this as an opportunity to get into a debate that may seem political in nature.”
There were other differences between previous shootings that prompted a gun control push from Democrats and what happened Wednesday, such as that the massacres in Newtown, San Bernardino and Orlando were tragedies of a significantly larger scale, with upwards of dozens of fatalities.
In Wednesday’s shooting, only the suspect — identified by law enforcement officials as James T. Hodgkinson, 66, of Belleville, Ill. — has died. Hodgkinson had often published social media posts lashing out at Trump and the GOP, stoking concern from Republican lawmakers about whether they will be targeted because of their party label.
Last June, Democrats in the Senate prompted the most sweeping debate over gun policy since the aftermath of Sandy Hook, when the chamber considered restricting firearms access to those with ties to terrorism and to bolster background checks. But the deeply divided chamber rejected all four measures put on the Senate floor for a vote.
Three years before that, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) teamed up on a comprehensive background checks proposal in the wake of Sandy Hook. It was ultimately filibustered by nearly all Republicans and a handful of Democrats in the Senate.
On Wednesday, Manchin downplayed speculation about whether the shooting would prompt any concrete legislative action tightening rules on gun ownership.
"It always spurs that," Manchin said of a new gun control push. "I just don’t get overexcited anymore."
Another Republican who backed Manchin-Toomey — Sen. John McCain of Arizona — said Wednesday that reviving a gun debate would “be fine with me, whenever they want to.” But most other GOP lawmakers have long resisted enacting new and tougher firearms restrictions.
“I own a gun; I don’t go around shooting people with it. Bottom line: people get shot, run over by cars, stabbed. It’s just a crazy world,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “If we had that debate it’d end like it always ends. We’re not going to tell law-abiding people they can’t own a gun because of some nut job.”
Indeed, as legislative battles over gun policy raged in the Senate, the GOP-controlled House did not take up firearms measures on the floor, even in the aftermath of Orlando. A House panel on Wednesday had been scheduled to take up legislation making it easier to purchase gun silencers — the most significant movement on gun rights measures under the new Trump administration — but that hearing was postponed.
The legislative standstill in Washington has forced supporters of additional gun restrictions to confront a difficult reality on Capitol Hill — is it even possible in this political climate to enact tougher laws while balancing constitutional rights to own firearms?
“I don’t know who this person is,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said, referring to the shooting suspect. “But obviously someone who is very sick and if he had a criminal background … then yeah, shame on us. But Second Amendment is the Second Amendment.”
Adam Cancryn contributed to this report.