Congressman's Shooting First Test for Trump-era Gun Debate

WASHINGTON (AP) — On the day that gunfire shattered the morning calm of suburban Washington, dozens of family members of those killed by past gun violence had gathered in the capital to lobby against Republican-backed legislation to make it easier to buy gun silencers.

The lobbying effort and a related hearing were canceled in the aftermath of the shooting. But gun control advocates aren’t going far.

They’re plodding ahead, hopeful for action but pragmatic enough to know that the latest shooting doesn’t dramatically alter the dynamics of their uphill battle.

“Anytime there’s a tragedy, it just once again amplifies the problem with gun violence in our country,” said Lucy McBath, whose son, Jordan Davis, was shot to death four years ago in a dispute over loud music.

Wednesday’s shooting at a congressional baseball practice marked the first high-profile test of Trump-era gun politics: Republican control of Congress and the White House has all but eliminated talk of tightening federal gun laws. President Donald Trump won election in part by making clear his opposition to new restrictions on gun purchases.

Gun control advocates, already on the defensive, insist they’re not abandoning their efforts in Congress or state legislatures. But after Wednesday’s shooting of Republican Rep. Steve Scalise and several others, they did not immediately land on a new strategy to challenge Trump and the Republican-led Congress.

“It is frustrating. These kinds of tragedies happen every single day,” said McBath. “Americans should be able to play baseball and dance in a nightclub or attend religious services without the fear of being gunned down. Americans can do better and we deserve better.”

As gun control advocates eyed the challenging political reality, the powerful National Rifle Association made clear it was not backing off.

NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch praised the Capitol Hill police, saying that “good guys with guns kept this from getting worse.” She said the organization would continue pushing for gun-friendly legislation at the state and federal level, arguing that new gun-control measures are not the answer.

“Evil is real, evil exists and it makes no sense that the good cannot protect themselves against evil,” said Loesch. “Those policies have failed where they have been implemented.”

Echoing those sentiments, the Republicans who control Washington dug in.

Trump ally Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., who has a permit to carry a gun, vowed to keep his weapon close: “On a rare occasion I’d have my gun in the glove box or something, but it’s going to be in my pocket from this day forward,” Collins told a Buffalo ABC affiliate.

Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., argued that tougher gun laws aren’t the answer. He noted the shooter had a criminal record and was from Illinois, which already has strict gun laws, “yet he was still able to access a firearm somehow.”

The shooter was identified as James T. Hodgkinson, a 66-year-old home inspector from Illinois who had several minor run-ins with the law in recent years and belonged to a Facebook group called “Terminate the Republican Party.” Officers in Scalise’s security detail wounded Hodgkinson, who was taken into custody and later died.

Many gun control groups spent the immediate aftermath of the shooting privately contemplating their strategy. Most decided to proceed with caution, issuing public statements that avoided the gun control debate altogether.

“This shooting is an attack on all who serve and on all who participate in our democracy,” said former Rep. Gabby Giffords, the only other member of Congress shot in the last four decades. Giffords said in a statement that she was “heartbroken” for Scalise and the other victims.

A group connected to the Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre said the latest shooting showed that “more conversations are needed.”

“This is not about more guns, which we know would not have prevented this event in spite of the presence of Congressman Scalise’s armed detail,” said the group Sandy Hook Promise. “This is about prevention and education, about knowing the signs of someone who might commit an act of violence and how to stop it from happening in the first place.”

They’re pushing ahead in a harsh environment.

Trump, who has offered strong support for the NRA, appeared at the group’s convention in April and told members: “The eight-year assault on your Second Amendment freedoms has come to a crashing end.”

In one early sign of the new pro-gun environment, Congress in February passed a resolution to block a rule that would have kept guns out of the hands of certain people with mental disorders. Trump quickly signed it.

Gun control groups hope to defeat an NRA-backed effort to enact a national “concealed-carry reciprocity” law that would require all states to recognize other states’ concealed carry permits. They helped beat back such proposals in Congress repeatedly during Obama’s presidency, but face a far steeper challenge in the Trump era.

In the face of it all, McBath said simply: “I have hope.”


AP writer Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.

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