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Despite Mass Shootings, Republicans Won't Touch Gun Laws

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 7/10/2015 Jennifer Bendery
CONGRESSCAPITOLGOVERNMENTPOLITICSSENATEDEB FISCHER © Bill Clark via Getty Images CONGRESSCAPITOLGOVERNMENTPOLITICSSENATEDEB FISCHER

WASHINGTON -- Last week's mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon, was the 265th time that's happened in the U.S. this year. It  came after the movie theater massacre in Lafayette, Louisiana, in July that left two dead and nine injured, which came after the mass shooting in  Charleston, South Carolina, in June that killed nine.

There have been plenty of others. They just didn't make national news.

Through it all , Congress has done nothing about gun violence. The last time lawmakers acted was in April 2013, when the Senate failed to pass a bill tightening background checks on gun sales. The Huffington Post got to thinking: Is there a level of violence that would cause a lawmaker to reconsider his or her opposition to gun control bills? A mass shooting every week? Another attack on an elementary school, this time in his or her home state?

On Tuesday, HuffPost posed the question to nine senators who voted against the 2013 background checks bill. Most didn't really want to talk about it.

"That's a hypothetical question," said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). "I take every case based on the evidence before me, not speculation. I'm not going to speculate."

Asked if the uptick in mass shootings has swayed his opinion at all on the need to rein in gun laws, Isakson said, "No. No it has not."

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), the only Democrat still in the Senate who voted against the background checks bill, said she hasn't looked at any bills targeting gun violence.

"Obviously, I consider every legislation individually. We'll see what comes," she said. "That's the extent of it."

HuffPost started to ask another question, but Heitkamp interrupted.

"That's my comment."

Some senators disputed that tightening background checks on gun sales would have any effect on stemming gun violence.

"It's been shown that it really wouldn't," said Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.). "The people who have committed these horrific crimes would never have been stopped by a background check."

"Not one of the gun violence cases that has been talked about is related to that," said Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), ducking into an elevator. "So, it's a different issue."

A better background check system may not have stopped the Oregon shooter, but data clearly shows it would make a difference in curbing gun violence.

Gun deaths dropped by 40 percent in Connecticut after it passed a 1994 law requiring people to pass a background check and a gun safety course before they could buy a gun.  At the national level, from 1994 to 2012, the current background check law blocked more than 2.4 million prohibited people from buying a gun. These people include domestic abusers, convicted felons and people with serious mental illness.

One problem with the current background checks law is that there's a loophole. Anybody can buy guns online or at gun shows without a background check. The failed 2013 Senate bill would have closed that loophole.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) argued against tightening background checks, but then appeared to make the case for doing it. He criticized the Obama administration for not prosecuting enough criminals with guns and said it's a huge problem that felons can get a hold of guns -- something they can do at gun shows, for example, because of the lack of background checks.

Asked about that connection, Sessions said, "Well, there must not be that many of them because the prosecutions are declining."

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) was the only senator who said it would be a good idea to focus on strengthening background checks, even though he opposed the 2013 bill. He said that bill went  "too far" by requiring checks on people buying guns on the Internet. 

"There is a way you can tighten background checks without having the issues like that," Flake said. "I continue to believe we can strengthen our background checks with regard to mental health issues."

If there's one issue that these senators wanted to talk about when asked about gun violence, it was the mental health component. Nearly all of those who were interviewed said their attention is on that aspect of the problem, instead of on gun laws.

"What I've been focused on, and I think it very much relates to, unfortunately, too many of these mass shootings, is improving our early intervention mental health system," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.). "Hopefully we can take some immediate action and find common ground."

Some senators seemed to feel as helpless about gun violence as the people wondering why they're not doing anything about it. Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) conceded that gun violence couldn't be much worse than it is now, but said nobody knows what to do. He suggested the Senate should probably talk about it. 

"Before anybody passes a bill here, we need a discussion and a debate and evidence as to whether or not it will do any good," Coats said.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said there's no point in passing laws to restrict access to firearms because "criminals are always going to get guns."

"We have a constitutional right on that. We hate all that," Shelby said of gun control bills. "We have some background checks now."

But what about the gun show loophole?

"Yeah. Well," Shelby said, walking away. 

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