'Too many of these': Biden, Senate urge action after Colorado shooting

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WASHINGTON — Urging action by the gridlocked Senate on gun law reforms, President Joe Biden on Tuesday demanded the chamber immediately pass two bills on the day after a gunman killed 10 people at a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado.

Connecticut Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal spoke ardently on the reforms, as they have after every mass shooting since the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012.

And Waterbury Chief of Police Fernando Spagnolo testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday — a firearms reform hearing that, as it happened, was long scheduled — that Connecticut’s gun laws, some of the toughest in the nation, were undermined by weaker federal standards.

The speeches and debates unfolded in the raw moment of anger and resolve that always follows a mass shooting.

“We’ve been through too many of these,” Biden said in a speech at the White House. “I don’t need to wait another minute let alone an hour to take common sense steps that will save lives in the future and to urge my colleagues in the House and Senate to act.”

The bills on the table would tighten federal background check laws and ban what Biden called “assault weapons” — military-style, semiautomatic firearms paired with high-capacity magazines.

Biden's press secretary said Tuesday the president is also considering a range of executive actions on gun laws. Those could reportedly include moves to tackle “ghost guns” assembled at home and law enforcement notifications when background checks fail.

The hearing on Capitol Hill, on how to respond to an uptick of gun violence during the pandemic, showcased what Biden and other Democrats have tried to overcome: a persistent divide between the two parties on firearms in America and an uphill battle for reform.

Murphy insisted that now is the moment for change and suggested Tuesday he was now willing to toss out the Senate filibuster rule so Democrats can get the reforms they want without Republican votes.

Widespread support

The Boulder shooting was the second time in less than a week that the White House ordered flags to fly at half staff following a mass shooting. In Atlanta, another man shot and killed eight people, including six Asian-American women, at spas last week.

Across the country, gun sales and gun deaths increased during the pandemic. Last week, Bridgeport saw its third gun homicide of the year and second in less than seven days.

Murphy will meet with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., this week to decide a path forward on gun legislation in the Senate. Biden and Murphy both support two bills passed by the Democratic-led House of Representatives earlier this month that would require background checks for online firearm sales, at gun shows and in some private transactions.

“I don't see a lot of need to make changes to a bill that has 90 or 95 percent public support,” Murphy said. “It makes some sense to sort of test whether Republicans really want to still be on the outside side of this issue. So I'm always willing to listen to Republicans. I've been in dialogue with them, but I don't want to be negotiating against myself when there's a proposal that is wildly popular, a political movement behind it that is growing stronger.”

Schumer has said he would bring the legislation to the Senate floor to put Republicans on the record on the issue. But on Tuesday, the moderate Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V. said he opposed two House bills, meaning Schumer and Murphy’s strategy could embarrass on one of their own. Manchin said commercial gun sales should be subject to background checks but sales between private individuals should not.

Schumer also said he had not discussed a ban on assault weapons with Biden recently. Democrats have not coalesced around one major proposal to do that, but legislation could bar sales of military-style, semi-automatic weapons like those banned in Connecticut in 2013. Biden helped pass a 10-year federal ban on similar guns as a senator in 1994.

Connecticut example

Democrats — often led by the Connecticut delegation — have pushed to change federal gun laws since Sandy Hook but have failed for years to reach compromise with Republicans. Asked whether he now had the political capital to get something done, Biden said “I hope so,” and crossed his fingers.

“I don’t know. I haven’t done any counting yet,” he added.

Both Murphy and Blumenthal are at the center of the gun debate, leading bipartisan Senate negotiations over background checks, so-called red flag laws to take guns from people who threaten their communities, safe storage of firearms and other reforms.

Blumenthal, who helped lead the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun laws Tuesday, said the U.S. Congress was “complicit” in the Boulder, Colorado shooting due to their inaction.

“Gun violence is an epidemic in its own right,” said Blumenthal. “We need to end this epidemic with a comprehensive nationwide approach: expanded background checks, extreme risk laws to prevent suicides, mass shooting and hate crimes, protecting domestic victims and safe storage standards. These kind of measures are in our reach.”

Spagnolo, the Waterbury polce chief, testified about Connecticut’s successful efforts to quell gun violence since Sandy Hook, including a 2013 law that was the nation’s most stringent.

“In 2019, Waterbury experienced some of its lowest levels of gun violence in years,” he told the committee. “Statewide, since 2014 we saw a 41 percent reduction in gun homicides and a 15 percent reduction in gun suicides.”

End the filibuster?

But the hearing exposed a fraught rift between the two parties on federal gun laws. While Democrats championed the measures, Republicans — equally vocal about the need to pass legislation — backed stronger police forces and prosecution of people who illegally purchase guns. They said the progressive movement to “defund the police” made communities less safe.

“What happens in this committee after every mass shooting is Democrats propose taking guns away from law abiding citizens because that’s their political objective,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who repeatedly targeted Blumenthal in his comments. “But what they propose, not only does it not reduce crime, it makes it worse... when you disarm law-abiding citizens you make them more likely to be victims.”

To pass a bill, Democrats will either have to strike a deal on one of the most politically difficult issues they face or eliminate the filibuster in the Senate, which would allow Democrats to pass bills with no Republican votes, but could backfire in other ways.

Murphy, who previously said he was interested in reforming the filibuster but not getting rid of it entirely, indicated Tuesday a new willingness to ditch the Senate rule if it meant getting gun laws passed.

“I’m for anything. I'm for the quickest method to, you know, sort of fix what’s wrong with the Senate,” Murphy said. “If the filibuster is the only thing that stops a wildly popular proposal from becoming law, then, it’s certainly, it should be part of the conversation as to why the rules need to change.”

The number of mass shootings increased in 2020 as the public health crisis forced more people home, many without work or school. Protests over civil rights and policing rocked the country and although the vast majority were peaceful events, a handful of events produced gun homicides and others were accompanied by other crimes. People also bought more guns than ever before in 2020.

Vice President Kamala Harris called the Colorado shooting “baffling.”

“It's 10 people going about their day living their lives, not bothering anybody,” Harris said. “A police officer who is performing his duties, and with great courage and heroism.”

Spagnolo said there’s only so much individual states can do.

“Over two-thirds of the crime guns traced by law enforcement in Connecticut come from other states, and gun traffickers will continue to exploit weaknesses in federal law. Unless we can stop the unchecked flow of guns into cities like mine, preventing cycles of violence will be almost impossible.”

emilie.munson@hearstdc.com; Twitter: @emiliemunson