WASHINGTON — Arming teachers. Limiting access to school buildings to a single locked door. Expanding research into school violence. Creating a federal task force to recommend how communities can make schools safe. Improving mental health care.
In the days after the massacre of 19 elementary school students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, by an 18-year-old who had legally purchased two assault-style rifles, Republicans have offered up seemingly every potential solution to stop mass gun violence except restricting access to the weapons themselves.
“Don’t have all of these unlocked back doors,” Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, said on Fox News Wednesday, noting that police said the Uvalde gunman entered Robb Elementary School through an unlocked door. “Have one door into and out of the school and have . . . armed police officers at that door.”
Republican elected officials in Washington and Texas said they are horrified by the second-deadliest school shooting in the nation’s history and want to find ways to prevent another one. But even as a bipartisan group of senators has begun negotiating on legislation that could include expanding background checks, most Republican lawmakers say there’s one line they won’t cross: adding any significant hurdles to access weapons in a nation that has more guns than people.
“The Constitution, the Second Amendment, is a big impediment,” Senator Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, said of the obstacles to a deal to address gun violence. “A lot of us believe in the Constitution.”
This limitation has led to some puzzling comments from Republican lawmakers and candidates as they face increasingly pointed questioning about how to stop the staggering amount of gun violence that is far more prevalent in the United States than in other wealthy nations.
“What about getting a department that’s looking at young men that’s looking at women that’s looking at their social media?” said Georgia GOP Senate candidate Herschel Walker, in a Fox News interview in which he also suggested increasing mental health resources. “But yet they want to continue to talk about taking away your constitutional rights.”
Senator Tommy Tuberville, an Alabama Republican, denied a connection between weapons, including assault-style rifles, and mass shootings. “The problem starts with people, not with guns,” he said, before suggesting creating a “mental health program” for people in the country and tackling drug addiction.
Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick touted his state’s existing program that allows teachers to be armed, which did not prevent the massacre, and called for more security around schools.
The approach has infuriated many Democrats, who point out flaws in the Republican plans. “Fire marshals and tactical experts totally and vehemently disagree,” Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer said of Cruz’s one-door proposal.
They’ve also accused Republicans of hypocrisy for a sudden concern with mental health access, given their opposition to expanded government health care that would facilitate that access. (Research also suggests mentally ill people make up a minority of those who commit homicides and mass violence.)
Most important, Democrats said, the Republican proposals don’t get at the main cause of the gun violence: the guns.
“We hear the red herring that there are mental health issues here that have to be dealt with, that’s the underlying cause,” Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, told a rally of about 200 gun safety advocates Thursday in front of the Capitol. “Well, every industrialized country has citizens with mental health issues. But they do not have an epidemic of gun killings in their country.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren said Republicans were simply trying to distract from their support for “100 percent access to guns under any and all circumstances.”
“I’m all in favor of expanded support to deal with mental health issues. I’d like to see Republicans actually put something on the table for that,” the Massachusetts Democrat said. “I’m all in favor of best practices for school safety. But none of that substitutes for addressing the gun problem head on.”
Democrats, however, need at least 10 Senate Republicans to advance any legislation addressing mass shootings. A bipartisan group spearheaded by Senators Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, and John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, are in preliminary discussions about what could gain that support.
Any move to restrict access to weapons would be a poison pill for Republicans, lawmakers said.
“What I do know is restricting the rights of law-abiding citizens is not going to make our communities or our country any safer,” Cornyn told reporters Thursday. “So we need to focus on the specific problem and try to find ways to fix that.”
Instead, some Republicans are open to legislation that would “harden” school buildings to make them more difficult to attack, although Democrats have criticized the idea of making campuses into jail-like fortresses. Cornyn also said lawmakers could look at red flag laws, which would keep guns out of the hands of people a court deems threats to themselves or others. He said such laws, which Massachusetts and at least 18 other states have, are not a panacea. And some Republicans have expressed concerns about granting the government the power to seize guns.
“What you try to do when you deal with a problem as horrific as this is strike a balance between respecting people’s constitutional rights and public safety,” said Senator John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican. He accused many Democrats of wanting to use gun restrictions as a steppingstone to the ultimate goal of banning guns.
“If those kind of gun control laws worked, Chicago would be Mayberry,” Kennedy said, comparing the gun-violence-plagued city to the fictitious quiet Southern town of TV’s “The Andy Griffith Show.”
Some Republican senators, such as Chuck Grassley of Iowa, are pushing legislation that could gain bipartisan support because it does not include gun reforms. His Eagles Act, named after the mascot of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 14 students and three staff members were killed in a 2018 mass shooting, would create a Safe School Initiative, that includes expanded research on school violence.
“What we’re dealing with here is trying to get some movement on things that are bipartisan,” Grassley said of his bill, which has several Democratic cosponsors.
Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, is the lead sponsor of the bipartisan Threat Assessment, Prevention, and Safety Act, which would create a task force of experts to provide school safety recommendations and help communities do local threat assessments.
“We have to spend more time understanding why,” he said. “Why are people doing this?”
But Warren said that by not tackling gun access head on, Rubio and his colleagues aren’t dealing with the real problem.
“The Republicans in Congress are doing everything they can to avoid addressing gun violence,” she said.