Their own targeted, US Republicans want looser gun laws, not stricter ones

FBI personnel search around a batting cage at the Eugene Simpson Stadium Park following the mass shooting in Alexandria, Virginia, on June 14, 2017.
FBI personnel search around a batting cage at the Eugene Simpson Stadium Park following the mass shooting in Alexandria, Virginia, on June 14, 2017.PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Shaken and angry, Republican members of Congress seized on the brazen daytime shooting of their colleagues on Wednesday (June 14) to demand that existing restrictions on gun access be loosened so that people facing similar attacks are able to defend themselves.

Past shootings have brought calls for more gun control, especially for restrictions on the kind of rifle used in Wednesday's attack. But the ardent supporters of gun rights who came under fire this time were not about to change their views.

As Rep. Steve Scalise, the third-ranking House Republican, had surgery for a gunshot wound to the hip, his colleagues complained that Washington's restrictive gun laws had barred him and other lawmakers who live in the capital from bringing weapons to the baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia.

"Had there not been a member of House leadership present, there would have been no police present, and it would have become the largest act of political terrorism in years, if not ever," Rep. Tom Garrett of Virginia said, pointing to legislation he has introduced to make it easier for people to carry a gun in Washington.

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That Bill "would allow the most law-abiding among us to defend themselves," he said.

Republicans who had gathered for the morning workout before Thursday night's annual congressional baseball game were blunt about their sense of vulnerability.

 
 
 

"The field was essentially a killing field," said Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who was there when the shooting happened. "You had no way to defend yourself."

The emboldened response on the right illustrated how much the centre of gravity has shifted in the gun debate. As Republican lawmakers grow more uniformly conservative and centred outside urban areas, few prominent voices in the party are willing to support gun control measures.

This is a striking departure from recent political history, when clashes over gun rights often fell along regional rather than partisan lines. The Republican majorities on Capitol Hill have blocked every attempt to enact significant gun control legislation, most recently after the massacre of 49 people in an Orlando, Florida, nightclub in June 2016.

Measures to block people on the federal terrorism watch list from buying weapons and to close background-check loopholes failed in the Senate.

And that was before President Donald Trump was elected with far more help from the National Rifle Association than Mitt Romney got in 2012. Trump received more money from the NRA than any other outside group.

"You came through big for me, and I am going to come through for you," he told NRA members at the group's annual convention in April, the first time a president had addressed such a gathering in person since Ronald Reagan.

"The eight-year assault on your Second Amendment freedoms has come to a crashing end."

With no appetite in Congress or the White House for restrictions on gun access, Democrats have become all but resigned to inaction. And with one of their colleagues in critical condition, many were muted on Wednesday.

"The problem is that nobody looks for a middle ground," said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn.

Cohen said part of the difficulty was that many Republicans in right-leaning districts are more afraid of conservative primary challengers than of Democrats in general elections. And few interest groups have as much clout among Republican primary voters as the NRA.

"They have an NRA rating they want to keep," he said.

Stymied in Washington, gun control activists have taken their fight to state capitals, city halls and corporate boardrooms.

"This is a marathon," said Shannon Watts, who leads Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a group that sprang up after the 2012 elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

Watts reeled off the gun restrictions the group has helped enact since shifting its focus away from Congress. Seven states have passed laws tightening the sale of firearms at gun shows since the Newtown massacre, and retailers such as Target and Chipotle have begun asking patrons not to bring in weapons. Any new federal laws, she conceded, would take several more elections.

As for the calls from Republicans to empower more people to carry weapons, Watts said, "if more guns and fewer laws was the best solution, we would be the safest country in the world." But with death threats against members of Congress already on the rise before Wednesday, Republican leaders are in no mood to rethink their gun rights stances.

Garrett, who has received threats this year, said it was not only lawmakers who deserved the right to protect themselves.

"There shouldn't be one standard for members of Congress and another for citizens who otherwise have the same right to self-defense," he said.

To many Republicans, the issue is fundamental.

Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, who helped apply a tourniquet on Scalise, wasted no time dismissing a question at the Capitol about whether his views on gun rights had changed.

"As with any constitutional provision in the Bill of Rights, there are adverse aspects to each of those rights that we enjoy as people," Brooks said. "And what we just saw here is one of the bad side effects of someone not exercising those rights properly."