Congress' Unofficial Mass Shooting Caucus

Despite the mass shootings in their own backyards, Representatives still have done nothing.

One hundred and twenty-three deaths. Twenty-two congressional districts, in 15 states and the District of Columbia. Thirteen Republicans, nine Democrats.

This is how the recent rash of mass shootings looks from Capitol Hill. In the three years since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, almost two dozen members of Congress have had to deal with such tragedies in their home districts. The unfortunate group, what might be considered an unofficial Mass Shooting Caucus, has soothed grieving relatives, calmed bystanders, and heard the calls for Congress to do something about what many call an epidemic.

But reflecting the entrenched and polarized gun control debate on Capitol Hill, the mass shootings in their backyards have not caused any of the members to noticeably shift their views.

Republicans from such districts defend Second Amendment rights as vigorously as any other lawmaker on the right. And when asked about how to fix the problem, they reject gun control proposals and instead focus on the mental health of the shooters — or, as in the case of last week’s California shooting, terrorism. Democrats, meanwhile, demand criminal background checks for gun buyers, higher qualifications for gun ownership and other new bans on assault weapons.

The only glimmer of consensus in a fiercely divided Congress is that public outrage over random acts of mass violence cannot be totally ignored. And while there’s no agreement on what elected officials should do on guns, there is agreement in backing bipartisan legislation bolstering mental health services through new grants and initiatives.

Republicans say such proposals offer the best way to address the recent shootings. Democrats say they’re willing to work with them if that’s all they can achieve on the federal level, even as they criticize Republican unwillingness to tackle even simple gun control measures.

Politico reviewed publicly available databases — from USA Today, Mother Jones, Stanford University, Everytown for Gun Safety, the Gun Violence Archive and — to compile an inventory of major incidents in which gunmen killed multiple unrelated people in movie theaters, public schools and shopping malls and other public places. They include the 2013 Navy Yard rampage, the 2014 killings near the University of California at Santa Barbara, and this year’s mass murders in Charleston, South Carolina; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Roseburg, Oregon; and Colorado Springs, Colorado. The list doesn’t count hundreds more Americans who have died in family murders, gang warfare and other forms of gun violence that occur with more frequency.

The congressional districts that have been affected range from rural Terrell in gun-friendly Texas to urban centers in Irvine and Santa Monica, California, with some of the nation’s strictest laws. The members range from Republican Rep. John Carter of Texas, who proudly noted that everyone in his district office has a gun license and that they often bond at the shooting range, to Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, the non-voting representative of Washington, D.C., where a handgun ban failed before the Supreme Court.

For some, the issue is still painfully fresh. Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) declined to be interviewed about the terror-inspired shootings last week at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, which left 14 dead and 21 injured. A longtime gun control advocate who worked on the issue when he was mayor of Redlands, Aguilar has written on Facebook about the “out-of-control gun violence epidemic” striking his district and issued news releases supporting President Barack Obama’s call for tightening background checks, banning assault weapons and blocking people on terrorism watch lists from purchasing weapons.

Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who represented Newtown on Dec. 14, 2012, when gunman Adam Lanza killed 20 schoolchildren and six adults, has started calling other members faced with mass shootings in their states. He remembers when Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) did the same for him after Sandy Hook. Perlmutter had dealt with his own district tragedy with the 2012 “Dark Knight Rises” shootings, when a gunman opened fire in a crowded Aurora movie theater, killing 12 and injuring 70.

“I don’t know how every representative can go home next summer with nothing to tell their constituents they did about these continuing mass shootings,” said Murphy, who had just been elected to the Senate when the Newtown tragedy unfolded. “I’m still a little bit ashamed of myself that I didn’t do more work on this issue before Sandy Hook.”

Murphy is sponsoring a bipartisan mental health bill now under discussion on Capitol Hill.

Some members say these mental health initiatives are a feeble first step. “You need a system of checking people more thoroughly for someone who might be on the terror watch list or who may be adverse to mental health issues — you need a background check system,” said Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), who represents Chapel Hill, where a man killed three neighbors in a highly publicized shooting earlier this year. “You also need to remove access to these battlefield or assault weapons; there is no reason for those weapons to be in the hands of civilians.”

Price — who, at the urging of his constituents, encouraged the FBI to investigate whether the shooting was a hate crime (the three dead were all Muslim) — also said it is “unacceptable to use mental health as a substitute for other kinds of measures.”

But addressing guns head-on remains a nonstarter for Republicans, even after mass shootings in their own communities. Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) represents Charleston, where a white gunman went on a rampage in a historic black church this summer and claimed nine lives. The racially charged murders attracted global attention.

But Sanford said the problem is best addressed locally, such as through charities and churches that look after their communities.

“There’s always a tendency to nationalize local tragedies,” he said in an interview outside the House chamber Tuesday. He has not decided, however, whether he would support banning people with severe mental health issues from purchasing a gun. “I think that the presumption of looking to Washington for the answer at the end of the day is the wrong one.”

Rep. Charles Boustany, the Republican whose cousin, Jerry Ramsay, was among those shot at a screening of the movie “Trainwreck” this summer in his Lafayette, Louisiana, district, said he does not consider guns the issue. “That was a mental health issue,” he said, noting that he’s responded to it by supporting a mental health reform bill that’s moving through his chamber.

“I don’t see a commonality” between the attacks in Lafayette and San Bernardino, Boustany said. “You need a comprehensive strategy to deal with what’s going on in the Middle East and the terrorism that’s emanating out of there. Mentally deranged individuals who get guns is something we need to deal with through our mental health system.”

Some members balked at association with the string of mass shootings — or just didn’t want to discuss it. Kevin Eastman, legislative and communications director for Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.), in whose district a gunman killed four and injured two at a tribal hearing in 2014, offered to talk about Islamic extremism but questioned the relevance of gun control. And Andre Castro, spokesman for Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas), said the office was surprised that a shootout between motorcycle gangs that left nine dead in their district encompassing Waco would be included in a list of gun killings.

“We never thought about it that way,” he said. “That incident was more of a fight that turned into a brawl that kind of erupted with tons of weapons.”

Rep. Dina Titus, a Democrat who represents the Las Vegas district where a couple with extreme anti-government views killed two police officers and an armed civilian in June 2014, said she’s so frustrated with inaction in Washington, in part due to sentiments like these held on the right, that she’s pouring her energy into a state ballot measure to tighten background checks.

“You would have thought after those first-graders were killed in Connecticut, if people had any shame, that would have caused people to do something, but it becomes so common people forget about it,” she said. It won’t change “until you have enough public groundswell and public opposition begins to override the influence of the NRA and people worried about getting reelected have to worry about voters more than NRA endorsements.”

Republicans seem to agree something must happen; mental health initiatives surfaced in many of the Politico interviews.

“I don’t think that any further gun control is the answer,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), who represents the Colorado Springs area district in which a gunman attacked a Planned Parenthood clinic the day after Thanksgiving, killing three people. “I’m in the camp of those who believe we need to look closer at mental health.”

Carter, who represents Fort Hood — where 13 people were killed in a 2009 massacre and three were slain in a shooting in April 2014 — called himself a “hard-core Second Amendment guy” in a brief interview. He was adamant that he’d never be a part of any effort to curb gun usage.

But on mental health and weaponry, he opened the door.

“I’m not going to step on anyone’s privacy or gun rights,” he said. But on barring those with severe mental health issues from getting such weapons? Maybe, he said: “I’d have to see it; I’m willing to listen.”

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Politico / Issaac Arnsdorf and Rachel Blade / Dec. 10, 2015