The debate on guns went nowhere, but the partisan sniping never stopped.
When Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head in the parking lot of an Arizona grocery store in 2011, it took more than a day before any national politician dared say the words “gun control.” Things happen more quickly now. Just hours after a former house inspector opened fire on a group of Republican lawmakers at a morning baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe called for more background checks and a closure of the “gun show loophole”.
“I talk about this every single day,” said McAuliffe, a Democrat, when a reporter at the press conference asked him if it was too early to introduce the subject.
A few hours later, Chris Collins (R-NY) told a Buffalo TV station that the shooting had had a profoundly different effect on him. “It’s going to be in my pocket from this day forward,” he said of his pistol, for which he said he already owns a carry permit.
The speed of the reactions to the day’s news comes faster than it did six years ago and there’s little doubt that the intensity of the partisan sniping has ratcheted up measurably, due in large part to an epically rancorous election cycle that appears to have inflamed Wednesday’s shooter, a 66-year-old Illinois man with a history of anti-Trump rants. But what remains the same between 2011 and now are the familiar narratives that have emerged on how to respond to the attack. To Democrats, the answer is fewer guns and greater restrictions on who can own them. To Republicans, the answer is just the opposite. In this way, the aftermath of the attack that seriously wounded Giffords and killed six others may provide a preview for the coming days, weeks and years that follow this latest high-profile shooting of a federal official.
On Sunday, the day after Giffords was shot, it was already established that the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, had carried only one gun. The fact that he had fired 33 rounds provided the basis for what would come next. “The only reason to have 33 bullets loaded in a handgun is to kill a lot of people very quickly,” said Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ). “These high-capacity clips simply should not be on the market.”
Lautenberg then said he would soon introduce a bill that, among other things, would reestablish the 10-round limit on magazines that had existed up until 2004 when President George W. Bush allowed the assault weapons ban to expire. His colleague in the House, Democrat Carolyn McCarthy, who had run for Congress after losing her husband and son in a shooting spree, soon announced her intention to do the same.
To Lautenberg and McCarthy, the wisdom behind their efforts was buttressed by accounts of eyewitnesses that had just begun to trickle out in the news. The sheriff for the county where the shooting had taken place reported hours after the attack that Loughner had been subdued after stopping to reload his gun.
The response in the legislature in Giffords’s home state was decidedly different. On the Monday after the shooting, a state senator pushed forward an already introduced bill to allow community college faculty members to carry concealed weapons on campus. To the senator, and his Republican colleagues, the logic behind the proposed law was as unassailable as Lautenberg’s effort to legislate for a smaller clip. Loughner’s community college professor had already told reporters that he’d been reluctant to face the whiteboard while Loughner was in his class, fearing that his student might shoot him while his back was turned.
Arizona Republicans also felt emboldened because, unlike in previous years, the gun-rights legislation they were offering up was no longer being vetoed. That had changed the moment Governor Jan Brewer had been elected, replacing Janet Napolitano, who President Barack Obama had asked to run Homeland Security. After Giffords’s shooting, Brewer said “I am just heartbroken. Gabby is more than just a colleague, she is my friend.” A little more than a year later, that friendship, at least publicly, appeared to be over.
That split between what members of both parties thought were reasonable reactions to Giffords’s shooting extended to the floor of the House. On the Wednesday afterwards, as newly-elected Tea Party colleagues lined up to sign a condolences book that would soon be delivered to Giffords, they also explained why new gun-related legislation wasn’t necessary at all. By then, reporters had discovered that Loughner had twice been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. That revelation broadened the conversation to include greater funding for mental health, another concept that was rejected by House Republicans. “In California, we had a special income tax for mental health funding,” Representative John Campbell told a reporter from Slate. “It’s since been rescinded, since we ran out of money!”
Democrats were also expanding the conversation above and beyond gun control. A political mailer from former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin that had put Giffords’s name in crosshairs had become the touchstone for a debate about changing the tone of political debate. Representative John Dingell (D-MI) spent his time at the podium during a House tribute to Giffords reciting a series of statements made by Republican leaders that he believed seemed to suggest violence as an alternative to civil debate. “Don’t retreat, reload,” said Dingell, quoting Palin.
By the next Sunday, Democratic leaders were already signaling that any proposals they brought forth had no chance of becoming law. “Let’s be honest here—there haven’t been the votes in the Congress for gun control,” New York Senator Chuck Schumer said on “Meet the Press”, eight days after Giffords’s shooting. In the months and year afterwards, Schumer’s observation would prove correct. Whatever momentary freeze in partisanship existed after the shooting didn’t last long.
Ultimately, Lautenberg introduced a trio of gun control bills, including one that would stop those on terrorist watch lists from buying weapons. None of the bills managed to make it out of committee. McCarthy’s bills suffered a similar fate. On August 1, 2011, Giffords received a standing ovation when she returned to Congress for the first time to cast her vote to raise the debt ceiling.
In November of 2012, during Loughner’s sentencing hearing, Giffords’s husband Mark Kelly took direct shots at Governor Brewer for what he perceived as a lack of political will on the issue of banning high-capacity magazines. Kelly called Brewer “feckless” and also lashed out at the state’s legislature. Just a few months after his wife had been shot, Kelly pointed out, Arizona lawmakers wrote a bill declaring the Colt Single Action Army Revolver, nicknamed “the peacemaker”, as the official state firearm. Brewer signed the bill. She did not respond to Kelly’s attack.
A few months later, in the aftermath of the murder of 20 children and six teachers and administrators at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Giffords and Kelly made their push into gun control politics more official. On January 8, 2013, the two-year anniversary of the shooting that robbed her of the use of her right arm and leg, along with much of her vision and speech, Giffords and Kelly announced the creation of the Americans for Responsible Solutions (ARS) PAC.
Giffords and Kelly were as politically palatable a pair of gun control advocates as could be dreamed up. “60 Minutes” shot video of Kelly, the son of two New Jersey cops, taking target practice with the couple’s Glock 9MM, the same brand and caliber of weapon Loughner had used to shoot his wife. Giffords told CNN she wanted to learn to shoot again, thought it wasn’t a “high priority.” “We didn’t want to be doing this,” Kelly said of the couple’s turn towards advocacy. “But sometimes you don’t get a choice.”
Giffords and Kelly’s PAC was part of that year’s push to capitalize on the Sandy Hook tragedy and change the nation’s gun laws. An effort that ended on April 17, 2013, which a visibly angry President Obama called “a pretty shameful day in Washington.” A series of votes in the Senate revealed almost no Republican support for expanded background checks, a ban on assault weapons, or a limit to the size of ammunition magazines, the issue that had been so prominent in the aftermath of Giffords’s shooting.
What’s more, the Senate vote revealed that not even gun control measures supported by the National Rifle Association could meet the necessary 60-vote threshold—a relatively benign attempt to clarify gun-trafficking laws only managed 58. In fact, amidst the Democratic efforts to strengthen gun laws, the one bill that received the most support was a contrarian piece of legislation meant to expand the range of concealed carry permits. “This is worse than I ever thought,” said Senator Chris Murphy, whose home state of Connecticut was the site of the Sandy Hook massacre. As Vice President Joe Biden read out the losing vote count, two women in the Senate gallery were ushered away by Capitol police as they yelled “shame on you!” One of the women, Patricia Maisch, had knocked the clip out of Loughner’s hand as he attempted to reload after shooting Giffords.
In the four years since, the same cycle of tragedy and fruitless attempts at legislation has repeated itself over and over. In December of 2015, shortly after the shooting spree in San Bernardino, California, the Senate voted down Senator Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va) attempt to expand background checks for guns purchased online and at gun shows. It also voted down Senator Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) effort to prevent those on terror watch lists from buying guns. Both amendments had been offered up before using almost identical language, and were attached to an Obamacare repeal package that had been offered up by Republicans dozens of times before, a rare bipartisan effort where each party packaged their collective failures into one larger whole. A similar episode played out the following year after the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando.
In the hours after Wednesday morning’s shooting, one big difference emerged between Giffords’s assailant Loughner and James Hodgkinson, who critically injured House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La) and four others before being shot by police. Whereas Loughner’s history of failed military service, run-ins with the law, and mental health records indicated a paranoid, mentally ill man without clear political intentions, the history of yesterday’s shooter indicated a man who had set out deliberately to harm Republican lawmakers. Facebook posts, letters to the editor at his local newspaper in Belleville, Missouri, and a host of statements delivered to friends and neighbors showed Hodgkinson to be a fervent Bernie Sanders supporter who had spent decades railing against a rising income inequality he thought was exacerbated by conservative politicians. He was also clearly disgusted by the election of Donald Trump. Not long before he died, and very shortly before he started firing on the baseball practice, Hodgkinson made his political intent clear when he asked Representative Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) if the players warming up on the field were Republicans or Democrats.
When Giffords found out about today’s shooting she was in New York City, where she and her husband Kelly had flown after attending the naming ceremony of the Navy’s newest ship, the USS Giffords, in Galveston, Texas. Giffords, Kelly told NBC News, spent the morning on the phone with old colleagues and members of the Capitol Police, who were credited with preventing a far greater tragedy. “These people become very close to members of Congress,” Kelly said. Giffords quickly issued a statement, as well. One that took pains to highlight the fact that no matter their reaction to the news, Democrats and Republicans were equally affected.
“This shooting is an attack on all who serve and on all who participate in our democracy,” she wrote. “May all Americans come together today with prayers for the survivors, love for their friends and family, and the courage to go about everyday making this country its best.”