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The Nashville school shooting highlights the partisan divide over gun legislation

A woman prays at a makeshift memorial for those killed in a mass shooting at the entrance of The Covenant School on March 29, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee. Three students and three adults were killed by the 28-year-old shooter on Monday.
Seth Herald
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A woman prays at a makeshift memorial for those killed in a mass shooting at the entrance of The Covenant School on March 29, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee. Three students and three adults were killed by the 28-year-old shooter on Monday.

America's latest mass shooting, this time at a Christian elementary school in Nashville, Tenn., has recalled nightmarish memories and raised one of the most vexing of political questions.

Before the funerals had even begun for the three children and three adults slain on Monday, the well-practiced roaring and debate had resumed in Congress. And so had the usual expressions of exasperation, because those who have followed the issue in recent decades have had an education in frustration and futility.

Democrats this week were once again asking how a person disturbed enough to use military-style weaponry on children could have such easy access to such weaponry. They want more legal restraints on guns.

President Biden this week called for the reinstatement of a ban on military-style assault weapons, a ban first instituted in 1994 but allowed to lapse a decade later. Bills that would restore the ban had already been introduced in both the Senate (S. 25) and House (H.R. 698) this year, following the Chinese New Year mass shootings in Southern California.

Republicans, for their part, were once again blaming the individuals who commit these crimes and changes in society they say have weakened our ability to fight crime in general.

Speaking to CNN news reporter Caitlin Collins on Thursday, South Dakota Republican Sen. Mike Rounds was direct: "I think the things that have already been done have gone about as far as we're going to with gun control."

Guns have been a sticking point in American politics since the ratification of the original Constitution

From the start, some of the former colonies wanted it made clear that their respective militias would not be disarmed by a federal force.

Accordingly, the Second Amendment reads: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed."

But in our time, that connection between the right to bear arms and the "well-regulated" militia is often lost, or regarded as an anachronism, a concept long abandoned. Gun rights advocates, and in recent years the federal courts, have held a more general view of gun rights.

The 2008 Supreme Court holding in District of Columbia v. Heller is the latestand most definitive defense of the individual citizen's right to keep firearms at home, and, in many states, carry them in public.

Yet if the gun rights community and Republicans in Congress see the issue as settled, the ragged parade of mass shootings keeps upsetting the national mood.

There have been more than 130 mass shootings in the U.S. thus far in 2023 with four victims or more, according to the Gun Violence Archive. In other words, there has been more than one per day on average.

But school shootings evince a particular kind of public horror. The latest bloodshed at the Covenant School has brought back the haunting images of child victims at Uvalde, Texas, where 19 students and two teachers were killed less than a year ago. And it was only a heartbeat further back the nation learned the names of Parkland, Fla., (2018), Sandy Hook, Conn. (2012) and Virginia Tech (2007).

At least up to now, school shootings have seemed to demand something more, something deeper and more soul-searching.

Indeed, it was a school shooting that led to the assault weapons ban that Biden spoke of reinstating this week. That law probably would not have happened but for a particularly ugly event in 1989 in the California city of Stockton.

The Stockton schoolyard shooting in 1989

Stockton is a cornucopia of the agricultural abundance all around it in California's central valley. The picking of fruit and other crops had long drawn immigrants and migrants to the region seeking work, new arrivals from Europe in the 1800s, followed by waves of Mexicans, Japanese and an array of other Asians.

Patrick Purdy, 24, was described as a drifter. He had been in and out of foster care since adolescence, struggling with alcohol and drug abuse. He had come to associate his own problems with the arrival of more Asian immigrants in America.

On January 17, he took his semi-automatic assault rifle to the Cleveland Elementary School and in a few minutes fired 105 rounds at the children on the playground for recess. Five students died, ages 6 to 9, all refugees from Southeast Asia. Thirty others were injured, including a teacher, before Purdy killed himself.

Patrick Blanchfield, author of Gunpower: The Structure of American Violence, noted in 2022 that after more than 30 years, the Stockton shooting was notable for its "uncanny familiarity ... it could be something that happened yesterday."

Indeed it was just a few weeks after Blanchfield made that comment that another shooter, also apparently motivated by animus against immigrants, killed 21 people in Uvalde, Texas.

Injured children are attended to in a schoolyard of the Cleveland elementary school in Stockton, Calif., Jan. 17, 1989, after a heavily armed gunman in combat fatigues opened fire killing five children and injuring 30 others, authorities said.
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Injured children are attended to in a schoolyard of the Cleveland elementary school in Stockton, Calif., Jan. 17, 1989, after a heavily armed gunman in combat fatigues opened fire killing five children and injuring 30 others, authorities said.

The Stockton story was national news, featured on the cover of Time magazine with the headline "Armed America." Public alarm at Stockton pushed the legislature to be the first to prohibit the sale of assault weapons that year.

Stockton was still reverberating three years later when California, the home of Republican presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, sent two liberal Democrats, both women, to the U.S. Senate It also stocked its legislature and congressional delegation with big Democratic majorities and gave its Electoral College vote to Bill Clinton.

One of the two women senators elected that year was former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who had first become mayor when her predecessor was shot to death in his office in the 1970s. She had long been outspoken on gun control and brought that commitment to Washington, D.C., becoming one of the principal sponsors of a bill banning assault weapons ban in her first year.

The Assault Weapons Ban of 1994

Feinstein and her cosponsors wanted to end the sale or manufacture of 14 categories of semi-automatic assault weapons. They also wanted to go beyond the California ban by outlawing copycat versions of earlier models and high-volume detachable magazines that held more than 10 rounds.

But the bill did not address the status of an estimated one million assault weapons nationwide. "Essentially what this legislation does is create a freeze," she said. She lamented the resistance that rarely produced actual arguments among her colleagues. She said had never realized "the power of the NRA in this town."

She was referring to the National Rifle Association, which along with the Gun Owners of America and other groups opposed Feinstein's bill. Gun organizations are among the more generous donors of campaign funds on Capitol Hill, but their greater power is in their ability to mobilize voters – especially in Republican primaries and especially in rural districts and states.

There were literally hundreds of exceptions included in the final version, distressing many of the bill's supporters. But getting the ban into the crime package to be passed in that Congress (with billions in new police funding) required many compromises. Ultimately, to get to a majority, Feinstein would have to accept a sunset provision by which her restrictions would need reenactment after 10 years.

Later that same year, Democrats suffered one of their worst electoral drubbings of their history, losing control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in 40 years. They lost the majority of House and Senate seats from the South for the first time since the Reconstruction period in the 1870s, and they have remained the minority party in those states ever since.

At the time, the ban on assault weapons came in for considerable criticism, as not only Southern Democrats paid the price but also their colleagues from Western states and rural districts generally.

That set of circumstances stymied further consideration of serious gun control throughout that first decade of the new century. Even after Democrats won back control of Congress in 2006, there was no prospect of Republican President George W. Bush signing gun control into law.

So when the 10-year expiration date on Feinstein's bill arrived in 2004, Democrats were no longer the majority party in Congress and all attempts to extend the 1994 ban were unavailing.

And when Democrats briefly held big majorities in both chambers in the first two years of Barack Obama's presidency, they focused their attention on reforms for health care insurance and Wall Street. There was not enough bandwidth for another challenging issue in 2009 or 2010.

The Sandy Hook Test in 2012

The next time serious energy developed behind renewing the ban was in the winter of 2012-2013. Barack Obama had just been reelected president, and the Senate was still in Democratic hands.

Just as important, the effort to address the gun issue had been given an enormous boost by a new and more horrific tragedy.

On Dec. 12, 2012, Adam Lanza, 20 — described by counselors as fascinated with mass shootings — killed his mother and took guns she had legally purchased to a Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

There he shot dead 20 children, ages 6 and 7. He also killed six adults on the school staff. Then he killed himself.

The national shock at the time is hard to appreciate a decade later, as there have been so many like it. But the sadness of that Christmas season contributed to a sense that something, finally, would be done.

But the 113th Congress came and went in 2013 and 2014 without passing notable gun legislation. A compromise measure on background checks, offered by West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey, got 54 votes in the Senate but needed 60.

As for prospects for reviving gun legislation in the current Congress, the situation looks much as it did a decade ago. The 118th Congress has a Senate where Democrats have a nominal majority that depends on the cooperation of several independents. Feinstein is still in the Senate, the longest-serving incumbent Democrat, but planning to retire next year.

The current House, like that of a decade ago, has a Republican majority led by a speaker whose power depends on placating a hardcore group known as the House Freedom Caucus.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.