Senators from both parties expressed their desire Wednesday to quickly pass school safety legislation that has bipartisan support as students nationwide walked out of high schools and rallied on Capitol Hill to call for federal gun laws to stop school shootings.
“There are things we agree on, we should pass those things,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee during an oversight hearing in the aftermath of the Feb. 14 shooting at Parkland, Fla., that left 17 students dead.
“There are things we should disagree on, I hope we’ll debate them and maybe we can find common ground on those as well,” Rubio said. “But we should first act on the things we agree on and take action, so this never happens to anyone, anywhere.”
Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said one thing that can be done is pass a bill he co-authored with Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., that would bolster enforcement of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, known as NICS. Cornyn said it has 69 cosponsors.
Rubio also mentioned a bill from committee member Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, that would provide federal grant funding for programs at schools, which has 35 bipartisan cosponsors.
House Republicans set a vote Wednesday on a House version of the bill that also has drawn bipartisan cosponsors. And the White House announced that President Donald Trump would sign the bill that “authorizes $500 million for State-based grants, administered by the Department of Justice, to support evidence-based violence-prevention programs in every middle and high school across the country.”
Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, called for consensus bills to pass and said he worried that “political opportunists will seek to interject their extreme agendas into this debate.
“I think it’s clear that we have a number of bills that the Senate can come together to support that can reduce school violence and mass shootings,” Grassley said.
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Democrats backed those steps but warned they weren't enough to end school shootings. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said measures to ban assault weapons and require universal background checks on all firearm sales would be necessary. And typically it has been harder to reach consensus on those types of gun control measures, particularly in the Senate.
“I know the politics here, Mr. Chairman, and it’s tough. And, of course, what I’d like to see as I have supported with a bipartisan way with my colleague, any little step we can get,” Nelson testified. “But at the end of the day you’re not going to stop these massacres until you get at these two commonsense things I’ve suggested.”
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., was one of several senators who mentioned the student protests during the committee hearing, saying they were mourning the loss of their classmates and innocence, but “also protesting our inaction, the inaction of Congress.”
“I don’t know what we’re waiting for. We don’t need any more tragedies. We’ve seen some of the most tragic incidents one can imagine,” Harris said. “And we don’t need any new ideas. We’ve got great ideas. What we need is the United States Congress to have the courage to act.”
At the hearing, the FBI witness, acting Deputy Director David Bowdich, testified that the agency did not act on two tips about the shooter at the Parkland high school. Several senators focused questions on how to hold the FBI responsible so it can better follow through on warnings about potential school shooters.
“As I wanted to be fully transparent on, we made mistakes here. No question about that,” Bowdich said. “That said, even if we did everything right I’m not sure we could have stopped this attack. But it sure would have been nice to try.”
Rubio said the FBI and local authorities share in the failure to act on tips about Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old suspect with a troubled past.
“He didn’t slip through one crack he slipped through every crack,” Rubio said. “And we have to figure out a way to address those vulnerabilities.”