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"What are we doing?": Senators debate gun control at Judiciary Committee hearing

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Washington — A Senate hearing on gun violence on Tuesday highlighted the significant disagreements between Democrats and Republicans on the best ways to prevent mass shootings and reduce firearm deaths. While Democrats argued that recent massacres show the need for more stringent gun control measures, Republicans said that proposed legislation to expand background checks wouldn't necessarily prevent violence.

The hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee was scheduled before Monday's shooting in Boulder, Colorado, which left 10 people dead, including a police officer. 

Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin began the hearing by saying that he could ask for a moment of silence to commemorate the victims of the latest shooting, but what he wants is a moment of action.

"We are Senate leaders. What are we doing? What are we doing other than reflecting and praying?" Durbin said. "We're not going to agree on every proposal, but if we share a commitment to reduce gun deaths, some proposal will work."

But Republicans argued that Democrats were using the shootings as an excuse to try to limit access to firearms. Senator Ted Cruz called the hearing "ridiculous theater" and insisted that gun control proposals from Democrats are "a bunch of laws that would do nothing to stop these murders."

Republican Senator John Kennedy compared the epidemic of gun violence to drunk driving.

"We have a lot of drunk drivers in America," Kennedy said. "We ought to try to combat that too. But I think what many people on my side of the aisle are saying too is the answer is not not to get rid of all sober drivers. The answer is to concentrate on the problem."

The hearing came after two deadly shootings in the past week. In addition to the shooting Monday night, eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were shot and killed last week in shootings at three Atlanta-area spas. Senators questioned eight witnesses at the hearing, including a Connecticut police chief, Chicago trauma surgeon and the executive director at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

The House recently approved two bills to expand background checks on firearm sales, even though the legislation is unlikely to pass in the Senate. The two bills are the first significant gun control measures passed in Congress since President Biden took office. 

One of the bills would establish background check requirements for gun sales between private parties, prohibiting transfers unless a licensed gun dealer, manufacturer or importer first takes possession of the firearm to conduct a background check. The other would close the so-called "Charleston loophole," which allows some gun sales to go through before background checks are completed.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer also pledged on Tuesday to prioritize gun reform and legislation, even if it doesn't receive bipartisan support.

"The Senate is going to debate and address the epidemic of gun violence in this country," Schumer said in a speech on the Senate floor.

In brief remarks on Tuesday, Mr. Biden also urged the Senate to pass these two gun control bills.

"The United States Senate — I hope some are listening — should immediately pass the two House-passed bills that close loopholes in the background check system," he said. Mr. Biden called on Congress to pass a ban on assault rifles and high capacity magazines as well.

But these bills may not even receive support from all Democrats. Senator Joe Manchin told reporters on Tuesday that he opposed the two measures passed in the House. The moderate Democrat from West Virginia noted that he comes "from a gun culture" and is a "law abiding gun owner."

"I don't support the bill the House passed. Not at all," Manchin said. Manchin and Republican Senator Pat Toomey introduced a bill in the wake of the 2012 shooting at an elementary school in Newton, Connecticut, which would have closed legal loopholes that allow people who purchase firearms at gun shows or on the internet to avoid background checks. However, the bill was unable to garner sufficient support at the time.

"I'm still basically where Pat Toomey and I have been: the most reasonable responsible gun piece of legislation called Gun Sense which is basically saying that commercial transactions should be a background checked. Commercial, you don't know a person. If I know a person, no," Manchin said.

A 2019 Suffolk University/USA Today poll found that 90% of registered voters in the U.S. believe that all firearms sales should require background checks, and some members of Congress believe that this widespread support will translate to legislative action. Speaking to reporters before the committee hearing, Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal expressed hope that the time to pass more stringent gun control is finally approaching.

"America woke today to another nightmare, stunning shocking, savage, but unsurprising because this kind of horror is thoroughly predictable as long as Congress fails to act. This time feels different. We have a President committed to ending gun violence, a majority in both houses of Congress, and most importantly, a growing grassroots movement led by a new generation, and of course our opponents are on their heels," Blumenthal said.

Lauren Peller and Jack Turman contributed to this report.

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