WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Lawmakers, shooting victims and advocates for stricter gun laws including actor Matthew McConaughey spoke out in Washington on Tuesday (June 7) for legislation to reduce mass shootings amid signs of movement on an issue that has stymied Congress for years.
Democrats in the US Senate said they were encouraged by ongoing talks with Republicans. The White House said President Joe Biden simply wanted to see some kind of legislation passed, even if a deal could not be reached on his call to ban assault rifles, as Congress debates federal gun legislation after more than a decade of inaction on the issue.
The renewed push to take on gun violence comes after a string of mass shootings around the country, including an incident in which 19 children and two teachers were shot to death at Robb Elementary School in McConaughey’s hometown of Uvalde, Texas on May 24 by an 18-year-old gunman wielding a semi-automatic rifle.
Oscar-winning actor McConaughey, who publicly weighed a run for governor in Texas last year but ultimately ruled it out, briefly met with Biden at the White House, and delivered an emotional plea for change from the White House podium, where he was introduced by press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre as a “gun owner.”
“Make the loss of these lives matter,” McConaughey urged as he held up pictures of some of the child victims and showed the green sneakers that helped identify a 10-year-old girl’s body.
The 52-year-old actor described growing up in the South Texas town.
“Uvalde is where I was taught to revere the power and the capability of the tool that we call a gun,” he said. “Uvalde is where I learned responsible gun ownership.”
McConaughey said responsible gun owners are “fed up with the Second Amendment being abused and hijacked by some deranged individuals,” and urged raising the minimum age for purchasing an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle to 21.
Last week, in a speech from the White House declaring“Enough, enough!” Biden called on Congress to ban assault weapons, expand background checks and implement other gun control measures.
Such moves do not have broad support in the Senate, however, which is divided evenly between Democrats and Republicans.
Democrats largely favour stricter gun laws, while Republicans largely hold an expansive view of the Constitution’s protection for the right to bear arms.
Gun rights advocates say the Second Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the right to own and bear firearms.
Former Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield, whose mother Ruth was killed in the Tops Friendly Markets attack that left 10 Black people dead, told senators they should step aside if they could not act.
“We’re more than hurt. We’re angry. We’re mad as hell,” he said at a news conference on Capitol Hill. “My mother’s life mattered. Your actions here today will tell us how much it matters to you.”
McConaughey appeared to choke up several times while holding up photos of some of the child victims. He talked about their families, what they were wearing on the day they were shot, and what they wanted to be when they grew up.
The actor described meeting a cosmetologist who was asked to prepare the victims for their open-casket funerals.
“They needed much more than makeup to be presentable. They needed extensive restoration. Why? Due to the exceptionally large exit wounds of an AR-15 rifle.”
He gave a brief biography of each victim, slamming his fist on the lectern at one point to describe one of them.
“While we honour and acknowledge the victims, we need to recognize that this time seems that something is different,” he said. “There is a sense that perhaps there’s a viable path forward. Responsible parties in this debate seem to at least be committed to sitting down and having a real conversation about a new and improved path forward.”
McConaughey spoke as Democrats in the US Senate said they were encouraged by talks with their Republican counterparts on firearms legislation – but warned any compromise would fall short of the steps they say are needed to curb gun violence.
McConaughey said he visited the White House to try to turn the moment into a reality. His comments, however, were expected to have little impact.
The actor, who met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill earlier in the day to discuss gun reform legislation, asked politicians to change how they approached their job in remarks that did not single out either party. His comments, however, appeared to be intended for Republicans in Congress who have opposed gun legislation.
“Let’s admit it,” he said. “We can’t truly be leaders if we’re only living for re-election.”
Biden also met with Senator Chris Murphy, who is leading talks with fellow senators, at the White House on Tuesday.
“We’ve still got work to do in the Senate. I’m grateful that the White House is giving us the space necessary to get a deal done,” Murphy told reporters after speaking with Biden. He said he aimed to get a deal this week.
Senators are considering modest proposals including encouraging states to adopt “red flag” laws to deny firearms to people deemed a risk to public safety or themselves; upgrades to school security and strengthening mental health services.
“Stopping gun violence takes courage,” former US Representative Gabby Giffords, herself a victim of gun violence, said at the opening of temporary memorial for victims of gun violence at the National Mall on the National Mall.
“Now is the time to come together. Be responsible – Democrats, Republicans, everyone. We must never stop fighting – fight, fight, fight! Be bold, be courageous,” she said.
Thousands of people have died in the United States from gun violence this year.