WASHINGTON — Republicans are taking up the language of social justice as they dig in against universal background checks and other policies designed to limit access to firearms.
As the country processes two deadly mass shootings in back-to-back weeks and reckons with growing rates of violence against Asian Americans, Republicans are shifting to oppose gun control measures on the basis of protecting Black, Latino, and Asian communities.
GOP senators on Tuesday framed gun control as part of a long and racist history of restricting the rights of minority groups during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence. While they still put forward traditional arguments that gun laws infringe on Second Amendment rights and punish law-abiding gun owners, much of their questions to witnesses focused on minority communities needing guns to protect themselves.
“Very often, inevitably in American history but even prior to American history, we’ve seen it’s rarely the empowered, very rarely the wealthy or those with political connections to the government, who have their rights interfered with,” said Republican Sen. Mike Lee.
Chris Cheng, a witness invited by Senate Republicans and a sports shooter who won the season four championship of the History Channel show Top Shot, related gun control to a historic pattern of infringing on minority rights that included the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. “We need to defend ourselves,” he said.
Congress is not currently considering any legislation to take away guns or bar any group of people from owning them, though President Joe Biden did call Tuesday to renew the ban on assault weapons enacted in 1994 that expired a decade later.
The legislation with current momentum in Congress includes two bills recently passed by the House on universal background checks. One bill would expand background checks to cover private sales, online sales, and gun show sales. The other would provide as many as 20 days for authorities to conduct background checks when someone wants to purchase a firearm. Currently, gun sellers can complete the purchase after three days if a background check has not been finished. Polls show expanded background checks are overwhelmingly popular among both Democratic and Republican voters.
While Republican rhetoric on guns is changing, the underlying politics remains the same. The party overwhelmingly opposes any gun control measures, including background check laws like those passed by the House.
“Thoughts and prayers alone are not enough. We need action,” said Sen. Ted Cruz at Tuesday’s hearing, echoing the words usually spoken by Democrats when calling for politicians to move beyond mere condolences to shooting victims.
In fact, Cruz was making an argument against measures like universal background checks and an assault rifle ban, calling it “ridiculous theatre where this committee gets together and proposes a bunch of laws that would do nothing to stop this violence.” He was talking about action on his own legislation, a much more limited plan that centers on increasing funding to law enforcement.
Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal accused Cruz of including “poison pills” in his legislation — usually a term for a highly controversial provision that sinks a larger bill, but in this case referencing enforcement provisions so weak that Democrats see them as less than better than nothing. Blumenthal accused Cruz of “using deceptive and fig leaf measures as a ruse to prevent common sense, effective gun-violence prevention measures.”
If there were ever any hope that the recent gun violence would bring politicians together, it was quickly dashed Tuesday. Democrats redoubled their calls for new laws, while Republicans derided Democratic proposals as misguided or unconstitutional.
“I’m not trying to perfectly equate these two, but we have a lot of drunk drivers in America that kill a lot of people,” said Republican Sen. John Kennedy. “We ought to combat that too. But I think what a lot of people on my side are saying is we ought not to get rid of all the sober drivers.”
Kennedy’s comments quickly spread around Twitter, where many people noted that the government does regulate who can drive a car.
As recently as a few days ago, infrastructure, rather than gun control, was the priority item for Congress. But deadly shootings in Atlanta, Georgia, and Boulder, Colorado, have moved gun control to the front burner. Biden called on Congress to immediately pass a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, as well as the two House background check bills.
But Democrats need at least 10 Republicans to override a Senate veto and pass any gun control measures into law. No Senate Republicans have thus far come out in favor of the House bills. There is not even unanimous support among Senate Democrats — Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia said he does not support the House bills.
The question now is whether Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer forges ahead on universal background checks and puts forward legislation that is likely to fail, or works with Republicans to craft a more watered down compromise that could have a chance of passing.