On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on gun violence just one week after a series of fatal shootings in the Atlanta area and less than 24 hours after another gunman killed 10 people in a Colorado supermarket.
During his opening remarks, Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) characterized gun violence in the U.S. as an unending scourge and scolded his Senate colleagues, namely Republicans, for opposing gun safety measures that Democrats and anti-violence activists have supported for years.
“I can’t change and amend my opening statement to keep up with it,” Durbin said, referring to the fact that he had announced Tuesday’s hearing before the most recent shooting. “It just keeps coming at us.” He also noted that gun violence in America is a frequent occurrence that disproportionately harms nonwhite people and went on to criticize legislators who merely offer thoughts and prayers to the victims of gun violence.
“Prayer leaders have their important place in this, but we are Senate leaders,” Durbin said. “What are we doing?”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) echoed Durbin’s call for urgent action.
“Inaction by this Congress makes us complicit,” said Blumenthal, who experienced it firsthand when conservative lawmakers thwarted gun safety measures following the mass shooting at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
Republicans on the Judiciary Committee were intent not to let the past week’s spate of gun deaths deter their opposition on Tuesday to Democrats’ calls for gun safety measures, including universal background checks, a widely popular policy that has faced nonstop opposition by gun manufacturers and the recently bankrupt Republican-backed National Rifle Association.
“Every time there’s a shooting, we play this ridiculous theater,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said of Tuesday’s hearing. He falsely claimed that Democrats have proposed “taking away guns from law-abiding citizens” and repeated a dubious claim that an amendment he supported to block universal background checks while improving public records would have prevented previous mass shootings. PolitiFact found that claim false when Cruz first began making it in 2017.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) during gun violence hearing:“Every time there’s a shooting, we play this ridiculous theater … Democrats propose taking away guns from law-abiding citizens … it makes it worse.” pic.twitter.com/yXUHsiOPhq
— The Recount (@therecount) March 23, 2021
At times, Republican senators tried to strike a chord of compassion by acknowledging the past week’s gun violence while proposing little to stop it — but others simply resorted to racist stereotypes.
Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) compared gun safety legislation to Islamophobia, likening Democrats’ push for gun safety laws after mass shootings to Republicans’ condemnation of Muslims “when a Muslim jihadist blows up a school full of children” because, Kennedy added, “many terrorists are Muslim.”
Six of the eight people murdered in last week in the Atlanta-area spa shootings were Asian, and antiracist activists have decried stereotypes like the one Kennedy used in his testimony.
Kennedy also downplayed America’s historically high rate of gun violence over the past year, comparing the crisis to drunk driving.
“We have a lot of drunk drivers in America that kill a lot of people. We ought to try to combat that, too,” he said.
Caroline Brehman via Getty Images Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) speaks during the gun violence hearing on March 23, 2021.
Democrats on the committee invited an array of gun safety advocates to serve as witnesses, including public health professionals and relatives of gun violence victims who spoke on the need for targeted legislation to curb the crisis.
“At hospitals across the country, we have seen the pain of gun violence. We are cleaning the blood from our gloved hands” said Dr. Selwyn Rogers, who directs the trauma center at the University of Chicago. “We can wash away the blood, but the pain stays with us.”
Another witness, Robin Brule, testified that she is a proud gun owner but that her support for gun safety measures stems from the murder of her 75-year-old mother, Ruth, killed during a home invasion in 2016.
“We always hear the saying about being in the ‘wrong place at the wrong time,’ but if a retirement community at 8 a.m. is the wrong place at the wrong time, where is the right place at the right time?” Brule asked. She is a supporter of universal background checks.
Republicans on the committee invited witnesses who downplayed the impact of gun safety measures and defended the gun industry.
“The firearms industry has unfairly been under assault,” said Geneva Solomon, a gun store owner and member of an organization called the National African American Gun Association. During her testimony, Solomon said she and other gun-sellers in California should actually be able to sell more gun attachments than the state currently allows.
Republicans also invited as a witness Chris Cheng, a professional sport shooter who appeared on a History Channel television show. Cheng, an Asian man who has made a living off of the gun industry, claimed that “Asian Americans are flocking in droves to buy guns” in response to the rise in anti-Asian crimes.
“I encourage people to be their own first responder,” he said.