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At Senate gun violence hearing, Atlanta and Boulder shootings do not budge GOP, Democratic divides

“We face a pandemic of coronavirus. We have another epidemic in America called guns,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate Judiciary Committee chair.

Senate Judiciary Committee Holds Hearing On Reducing Gun Violence
Committee Chair Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) attends a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on “Constitutional and Common Sense Steps to Reduce Gun Violence” on Tuesday, March 23, 2021 in Washington, D.C.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — I’ve been covering efforts in Congress to curb gun violence since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, and the two mass shootings in the last week — the latest in an ever growing list — did nothing to diminish the political divide at a Tuesday Senate hearing.

Even with a Democratic House, Senate and White House, getting gun control measures through Congress and signed into law remains a long shot.

A week ago, new Senate Judiciary Committee chair Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., announced a hearing on gun violence, the first on his watch. A few hours later, a gunman on a shooting attack left eight dead in Atlanta, including six women with Asian roots.

As Durbin was putting the finishing touches on his opening statement and questions on Monday night, 10 people died in a mass killing in a Boulder, Colorado, grocery store, including a police officer.

“We face a pandemic of coronavirus. We have another epidemic in America called guns,” said Durbin. While the timing of the hearing and the high-profile Atlanta and Boulder killings was coincidental, sadly, Durbin could probably pick any week and have a timely peg.

Durbin offered the latest stats; 29 mass shootings in the U.S. in recent weeks, and over the weekend in Chicago, 20 people shot with four dead. In one incident earlier this month in Park Manor on the South Side, two died and 15 were wounded.

“It just keeps coming at us,” Durbin said.

At the hearing, some GOP senators vaulted from the usual Second Amendment rights arguments to a new tactic: objecting to gun measures because they are “racist.”

They set themselves up as defenders of minorities in the U.S. — Black, Asian, Latino, women and LGBTQ — as the nation is grappling with racial injustice and with Atlanta throwing a spotlight on violence aimed at those of Asian descent.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, asked one witness to elaborate on the “racist roots” of gun control.

He directed the question to Chris Cheng, a gay Asian American professional sport shooter who in 2012 was the History Channel’s “Top Shot” season four champion. When it comes to guns and self-defense, “It’s us today, but it’s going to be someone else tomorrow,” said Cheng.

Lee also framed gun control as a class war, of elites telling others what to do, citing the 1600s in England, when King Charles II banned, he said, “commoners” from owning guns.

Another witness was Dr. Selwyn Rogers, the founding director of University of Chicago Medicine’s Trauma Center.

A disproportionate number of victims of gun violence are “Black and Brown people in communities of color,” he said. Gun violence “seems like an intractable problem,” Rogers said, but at one time so did dealing with tuberculosis, other infectious diseases and car crashes.

Earlier this month, the House, controlled by the Democrats, passed two gun bills: to expand background checks to cover almost all gun sales — including between private parties — and to allow more time, to 10 days, for background checks.

After the 2018 Parkland school shootings in Florida, versions of these bills passed the Democratic House only to stall in the Senate because now-former leader Sen. Mitch McConnell would not call a vote.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Tuesday promised a vote on a background check measure. “The Senate legislative graveyard is over,” vowed Schumer.

But with the Senate divided 50-50, Schumer would need to muster every Democrat, and it’s likely Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., won’t be a reliable yes.

While Durbin’s hearing was ongoing, President Joe Biden in the White House offered his condolences to the Boulder victims.

He urged Congress to reinstate bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

“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. These are bills that received votes of both Republicans and Democrats in the House,” Biden said.

Let’s not go overboard on GOP support. Actually, only eight House Republicans voted for the background bill — including Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill.

Durbin’s challenge is to discover his much sought after middle ground. Said Durbin, “We won’t agree on everything, I know that. But I certainly hope that we can do something.”