'When is enough enough?': Congress reacts to Florida school shooting
The deadly mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida has prompted an outpouring of grief across the country. On Capitol Hill, it has triggered a familiar cycle of lawmakers offering prayers, expressing outrage, but ultimately not taking action on gun violence legislation.
The Parkland school shooting that left 17 dead and 14 others injured was the second mass shooting at a school in 2018, and one of more than a dozen incidents involving guns on high schools or middle schools.
There have been 32 deadly school shootings in the United States since the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 20 children and 6 adults dead, according to the Gun Violence Archive, and many more mass shootings. Since 2012, Congress has not passed a single bill to address gun violence or mass shootings.
Florida's Democratic Senator Bill Nelson addressed a virtually empty Senate chamber on Thursday to ask other lawmakers, "When is enough enough?"
"These tragedies have led so many of us to come to this floor and to beg our colleagues to take commonsense actions that we know will help protect our children and fellow citizens from these tragedies. And we get nowhere," Nelson said. "So when is enough going to be enough?"
Recent mass shootings have prompted discussions about changing federal gun laws and symbolic demonstrations, but no action at the federal level.
After the 2016 Pulse nightclub terrorist shooting in Orlando left 49 dead, lawmakers debated banning individuals on the terrorist no-fly list from purchasing firearms. Democrats staged a sit-in protest in the House chamber demanding a vote on "no-fly, no buy" and expanded background checks, but the majority party refused to call the vote.
After a gunman in Las Vegas opened fire on a music festival last October killing 58 and leaving hundreds more injured, both Republicans and Democrats rallied around a bill to ban bump stocks, equipment that can make a semi-automatic rifle effectively automatic. Similarly, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle came together around a proposal to improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) after a Texas man with a history of mental illness and domestic violence murdered 26 people in a church in Sutherland Springs. Neither measure has been taken up.
Florida's Republican Senator, Marco Rubio took the Senate floor on Thursday sympathetic to the calls for action to prevent mass shootings, advising that if Congress does something, it has to be something that works.
"The struggle up to this point has been that most of the proposals that have been offered would not have prevented, not just yesterdays tragedy, but any of those in recent history," Rubio said, stressing that an individual committed to carrying out a premeditated act of violence "is a very difficult thing to stop."
"It isn't fair or right to create this impression that somehow this attack happened yesterday because there's some law out there that we could have passed to prevent it, for if there was such a law that could have prevented yesterday, I think a lot of people would have supported," Rubio said. "I think it's also wrong to say there's nothing we can do."
Some policymakers have focused on the type of weapon used by the19-year-old suspect Nikolas Cruz, calling for a more comprehensive ban on assault weapons, like the AR-15.
Florida Congressman Alcee Hastings, the Democratic representative for northeast Broward County, adjacent to Parkland, is frustrated by Congress' inaction.
"This is ridiculous that we continue to allow this," Hastings told Sinclair Broadcast Group.
"We have to have some action and it has to be sustained. It can't be one-off," he said referring to the House Democrats' sit-in protest in 2016. "We need to be here all night several nights in order to raise the profile."
One Republican lawmaker from California gave President Donald Trump credit for his White House address on Thursday, which focused on consoling the victims of the tragic shooting.
"We are all joined together as one American family, and your suffering is our burden also," the president said.
While delivering a prayerful message, Trump stopped short of recommending any specific actions, saying, "It is not enough to simply take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference, we must actually make that difference."
Trump ordered flags to be flown at half-staff for five days to honor the victims of the Parkland massacre. Later this month, the president said he will meet with governors and attorneys general to address school safety.
Hastings bristled at President Trump's speech and Florida Governor Rick Scott offering condolences to victims, but not recommending commonsense gun controls.
"I tire of the hypocrites," the Florida congressman said, arguing that Trump "may as well not waste his breath" unless he is recommending action to get assault weapons off of America's streets.
While the state of Florida blocked a series of bills aimed at loosening gun laws, Governor Scott and the Republican-controlled legislature also blocked measures to ban assault-style weapons, and in 2017, struck down a bill that would have required an individual applying for a concealed-weapons permit to undergo a mental health evaluation.
On Thursday, Scott Rick Scott vowed to make sure individuals with mental illnesses do not get guns. Local law enforcement also asked state lawmakers provide them with greater authority to detain people who make public threats, such as posting disturbing or threatening material online. In reviewing the Parkland shooting suspect's history, authorities found a pattern of abusive behavior towards peers and animals, as well as disturbing posts on social media.
While Washington has been in a largely partisan deadlock between the gun control advocates and Second Amendment enthusiasts, the American public has shown a growing desire to address the issue of gun violence in recent years.
According to the most recent Gallup poll on the issue, 60 percent of Americans believe gun laws should be made stricter. There is also a fairly even divide between the 47 percent Americans who want new gun laws and the 51 percent who want to see existing laws enforced.
A Pew Research study found overrwhelming support for specific gun control measures such as banning assault weapons and high capacity magazines. More than 80 percent of those polled favor preventing individuals with mental illnesses from buying guns, closing the gun show loophole and banning individuals on a terrorist watch list from buying firearms.
A handful of Republicans urged restraint in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, saying they want more information before addressing the issue of gun control.
"I want to know the whole story," said Rep. Steve King of Iowa, staunch gun advocate. "Then I want to know what we might have been able to do if we had applied the gun laws we have."
Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe argued that "every time there's an incident," Democrats try to leverage the tragedy to push their political agenda. "They'll always take a tragedy and try to capitalize on it."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called on Thursday for Congress to take immediate action on three measures: establishing a special select committee on gun violence, permitting the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence as a public health threat, and passing legislation to expand background checks.
"Children are dying in our schools," Pelosi told reporters. "We shouldn't be responding we should be preventing. We should be anticipating and have commonsense approaches to prevent gun violence."
Shortly after Pelosi called for action, House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke to reporters and shifted the discussion to mental health and keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.
"We want to make sure that if someone is in the mental health system, they don’t get a gun if they are not supposed to get a gun," Ryan said. He then called on Congress to look into any "gaps" in the enforcement of existing gun laws before adding new laws to the books.
A number of Democrats told Sinclair Broadcast Group they do not believe the current Republican-controlled Congress will take any steps toward addressing gun violence.
Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee, a sponsor of numerous gun control bills, does not believe Republicans will allow gun control or gun violence prevention bills to come to the floor. "It's amazing how much control the NRA [National Rifle Association] has over the Republican party," he argued.
"We are doing absolutely nothing," said Rep. Don Beyer of Northern Virginia stressed. "It's among the most dispiriting, discouraging parts of American public policy."
Even the bipartisan calls to ban bump stocks after the Las Vegas massacre, stalled in Congress, with the Republican leadership in the House deferring to the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) to address the matter through regulation.
"I have no optimism that we'll be able to anything in this 115th Congress," he said, noting that Democrats may be able to push "commonsense gun safety" if they take back the House in 2018.
Traditionally the House of Representatives has held a moment of silence following a significant mass shooting. On Thursday, the House leadership announced they were postponing the moment of silence until after the President's Day recess.
A number of Democratic lawmakers told Sinclair Broadcast Group that they will not participate in the symbolic gesture.
"I don't stand any longer," said Alcee Hastings. He explained, "There are too many of these incidents for me to be respectful of a body that is not doing anything."