With authorities still uncertain about the motive for the shooting rampage that claimed 14 lives in San Bernardino on Wednesday, California lawmakers in Washington found themselves in a familiar bind over how to respond to the massacre.
Some want a special House of Representatives committee established to probe possible causes. Others stress stricter background checks or tighter limits on gun ownership related to mental illness. Legislative proposals abound.
But in a bitterly divided Congress, where two Californians with starkly different ideologies hold competing House leadership positions, the odds are stacked against significant new federal action even after a catastrophe that hits home in the Golden State.
Police reported that all four of the weapons used in the massacre had been bought legally and that there were no legal impediments to owning the vast quantity of ammunition – more than 3,900 rounds for assault rifles – that police found with the shooters and at their home.
“Unless the majority of Republicans want to do something, the short answer is we’re not going to do anything,” said Rep. Jim Costa, a Democrat from Fresno who represents California’s 16th Congressional District. “There’s a lot of frustration among members that we’re not even doing the most basic things that Congress can do.”
Republicans control the House by 246-188, with a significant bloc of members aligned with the hard-right Freedom Caucus. Measures that can be cast as impinging on Second Amendment rights do not fare well.
“I don’t believe Congress should ever have a knee-jerk reaction on something,” said Rep. Jeff Denham, a Republican from the 10th District, which includes Modesto. He added that he sees no need for new laws.
If we had a vote, the background check bill would pass, overwhelmingly.
Rep. Mike Thompson, D-California
California Republicans win accolades for their stands against gun control. Denham earned a 93 percent position rating from the National Rifle Association last year. In a similar vein, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the Bakersfield Republican who’s largely responsible for setting the House agenda, earned a 0 percent rating in 2013-14 from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a group that advocates restrictions on gun ownership.
Instead of new gun-specific legislation, McCarthy told reporters Thursday that he favored as a response to the San Bernardino shootings a bill by Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pennsylvania, that would revise mental health treatment, including creating an assistant secretary position in the Department of Health and Human Services to address mental illness.
“There needs to be an overhaul of our mental health” system, McCarthy said.
A professional psychologist, Murphy introduced his Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act after the 2012 Sandy Hook mass shooting in Connecticut, in which 26 people died. The words “guns” or “firearms” do not appear anywhere in the 171-page bill.
Authorities have not mentioned mental illness as having played a role in Wednesday’s shootings.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, who’s responsible for marshaling Democrats in the House, said legislation targeting firearms must accompany any improvements to the nation’s mental health system.
“Gun violence is a crisis of epidemic proportions in our nation,” Pelosi said. “Congress has a moral responsibility to vote on common-sense measures to prevent the daily agony of gun violence in communities across America. Enough is enough.”
After the Sandy Hook shooting, Pelosi established a task force to study what Congress should do to reduce gun violence and appointed Rep. Mike Thompson, an avid hunter, Vietnam veteran and Democrat from Napa, to lead it. On Thursday, Thompson said the task force remained active.
“We’ve got some active legislation out there,” Thompson said, but “there has been no willingness to bring any of these up for a vote.”
One bill already introduced by Thompson, to expand background checks for all commercial firearm sales while exempting transfers between friends and family members, has 184 House co-sponsors, including a handful of Republicans.
Another measure backed by Thompson would stop firearms sales to individuals who are on the U.S. terrorist watch list. President Barack Obama urged similar action Thursday; but, underscoring the divisions, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, indicated that he couldn’t support the measure, cautioning that the watch list can be wrong.
Rep. Ami Bera, a Democrat who represents eastern Sacramento County, backs Thompson’s efforts and said Congress also needed to lift its ban on letting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study the underlying causes of gun violence.
The CDC hasn’t gone near the gun issue since Congress blocked funding for such research nearly 20 years ago.
“I look at this as a public health emergency,” said Bera, who’s a physician. “We ought to be collecting that data. We ought to be analyzing what the root cause of these mass shootings are, so we can actually make sure we are coming up with the right solutions.”
California’s senators, both Democrats, renewed their calls on Thursday for a ban on assault weapons.
“I have never heard one persuasive argument about why anyone else would need to have this type of weapon, these weapons of war,” Sen. Barbara Boxer said on the Senate floor. “They just don't belong on our streets and in our communities.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein told reporters that “this is such a huge, hard issue because it is driven by gun manufacturers who support the lobbying groups – who raise the fear of gun owners.”
Making use of his position as the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Rep. Adam Schiff, a southern California Democrat, said he’d received a telephone briefing from an FBI official Thursday. He said the FBI had yet to declare the San Bernardino shootings a terrorist attack.
“It certainly looks like there was a fair amount of preparation that went into this attack,” Schiff said in an interview.