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A familiar pattern emerges on Capitol Hill in the wake of a mass shooting. Lawmakers, aides, journalists and even congressional officials seem to follow a particular script every time.
Late Tuesday and Wednesday adhered to the congressional custom after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
The House of Representatives was out of session. The Senate was in for an abbreviated week. Some hearings. A few votes on nominations. The floor was open for speeches. But floor traffic was sporadic.
Then word broke that more than a dozen children had been killed at an elementary school in Texas.
The rhythms are familiar. Nearly the same thing unfolds each time.
In the early going, it was reported that 14 were dead.
And because we’ve covered stories like these for decades, I quickly calculated where this massacre stood compared to other massacres.
Fourteen wasn’t as big as Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut, a decade ago. Not as big as the slaughter at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida in 2018. But 14 was more than died at Columbine in 1999. This was on par with the 2009 Fort Hood, Texas, shooting and the 2015 rampage in San Bernardino, California.
President Joe Biden delivers remarks from the White House on the mass shooting at a Texas elementary school on May 24, 2022. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
A number like this meant President Biden would likely speak later in the evening. The president would order flags at the White House, the U.S. Capitol and other government installations lowered to half-staff. I suspected Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., would head to the Senate floor to vent about congressional inaction on firearms. The Capitol Hill press corps would search for lawmakers from Texas for their comments. There would be talk about gun legislation and mental health. Before too long, both sides would accuse the other of politicizing the tragedy. The House and Senate chaplains would likely mark the murders with a poignant prayer. And, the shooting would rekindle talk about changing the filibuster. Perhaps senators would lower the threshold to end a filibuster from 60 yeas to a simple majority. Or, maybe there would be a special carve-out on the filibuster, just for firearms legislation.
Sure enough, word came that President Biden would speak to the nation on Tuesday night. The flags were quickly lowered. The Capitol Hill press corps sought out Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and John Cornyn, R-Texas. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., surfaced on the Senate floor to rail against his GOP colleagues for inaction on firearms.
“What are we doing?” asked an angry Murphy. “Our kids are living in fear every single time they set foot in the classroom because they think they’re going to be next.”
Murphy also castigated his colleagues.
“Why are you here, if not to solve a problem as existential as this?” questioned Murphy. “I’m here on this floor to beg – to literally get down on my hands and knees and beg my colleagues – find a path forward here.”
It should surprise to no one as to why Murphy seized the floor within an hour of the carnage in Texas.
Parents leave a staging area after being reunited with their children following a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. (AP)
In December 2012, Murphy was a congressman who represented Newtown when bullets sliced through the school. He was also a senator-elect.
Few outside Connecticut had ever heard of Newtown or Sandy Hook before the butchery.
And prior to Tuesday, Uvalde, Texas, was like Newtown – pre-Sandy Hook. Uvalde’s biggest claim to fame was that it was home to former Vice President and House Speaker John Nance Garner, D-Texas. Garner is buried in Uvalde.
But Newtown and Ulvade are similar now. They’re also part of the shorthand – The Columbines. The Auroras. The El Pasos. The Daytons. The Orlandos.
“Sandy Hook will never be the same,” said Murphy. “This community in Texas will never be the same.”
Politics and countercharges finally seeped in.
“They’ll blame guns for everything that’s out there,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., of the Democrats. “Anything that comes up, they want to blame guns.”
When it came to politicization, Republicans quickly pointed to former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, barging into a press conference conducted by Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.
“This is on you!” charged O’Rourke.
It just so happened that the Senate Judiciary Committee was set to hold the confirmation hearing for Steve Dettelbach, President Biden’s nominee to run the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on Wednesday. ATF hasn’t had a Senate confirmed director in years. In fact, Dettelbach is Biden’s second selection for ATF Director. David Chipman withdrew his nomination last September.
A U.S. Secret Service officer lowers the American flag to half-staff over the White House following the mass shooting at a Texas elementary school on May 24, 2022. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
But at the hearing, Republicans suggested that gun control groups were appropriating the shooting for political advantage.
“Gun groups like the Brady Campaign and Everytown wasted no time in an attempt to profit off of this horrific tragedy,” said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, to Dettelbach. “At the end of the letter is a big red button that says ‘Contribute to end gun violence.’ Mr. Dettelbach, you’ve been endorsed by Everytown, is that right?”
“I believe so, senator,” responded Dettelbach.
“Are you willing to disavow their shameless, immediate fundraising after the Texas tragedy, just hours after this tragedy occurred?” asked Lee.
“Politics have no place in law enforcement. They have no place in an ATF director,” replied Dettelbach.
Senate Chaplain Barry Black helped open the Senate session Wednesday morning. Per Senate custom, Black offered a moving invocation to set the day, reflecting on the aftermath of the shooting.
“Lord, sometimes prayers seem so useless. Yet in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, You told us to pray without ceasing,” observed Black. “Inspire our lawmakers of mercy in the midst of a sea of indifference. Lord, use our senators to build a more safe nation and world.”
By midday Wednesday, there was already chatter about upending the filibuster to muscle gun legislation through the Senate.
The filibuster halts many things in the Senate. However, it didn’t directly torpedo firearms legislation in the wake of the Sandy Hook killings. But it came close.
In the spring of 2013, late-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., knew that the only way to even consider gun bills after Newtown – was to subject their passage to a 60-vote threshold. That’s the same figure required to break a filibuster. That’s because, not-so-secretly, some of the proposals were anathema to the other side. So they engineered a devil’s bargain, insuring that nothing would pass. Gun bills from both sides even scored more than 50 yeas. But they were doomed by the 60-vote threshold. No bill could secure a supermajority for passage.
Regardless, any firearms legislation would need 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. But it’s unclear if any measure could even score the simple majority in the current, 50-50 Senate.
Still, the filibuster question emerged on Capitol Hill Wednesday. And everyone flocked to you-know-who to inquire.
He wasn’t budging. Especially for guns.
“Filibusters should not be needed at all,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. “Even talking about throwing out the one tool that we have that keeps us working and least talking together – without that we’ve had nothing. You get no checks and balances.”
And so this is the pattern.
There’s lots of talk after each shooting. Lots of questions. Few solutions.
The rhythm is familiar. Everyone knows their roles, their lines, their places. And like actors in a stage drama, everyone plays their part.
Again and again.