Local high school students showed up in force Wednesday morning for a hearing, at the House of Representatives, on gun violence. It was the first such hearing that the House has held in the past eight years, during which Republicans held the majority in the chamber. Youth in March for Our Lives T-shirts occupied the last three rows of seats for members of the public in the hearing room. In front of them were teens and adults wearing T-shirts from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Everytown for Gun Safety—both groups that advocate for stronger laws as a way to prevent shooting deaths—and big pins that said "SURVIVOR."
Andrea Chamblee, 57, was wearing a pin and her husband John McNamara's press pass. McNamara was among those killed in what authorities called a "targeted attack" on his newspaper, the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, in June of last year. "I'm here because I'm going to be looking for a response from our elected representatives," Chamblee says. She wants to see background checks on all gun buyers and a national ban on assault rifles.
So it was a sympathetic room, to say the least, for Democratic members of the House Committee on the Judiciary, which hosted the hearing. The Democrats there argued for H.R. 8: the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, a newly introduced bill that would require unlicensed firearms sellers to run would-be buyers through the same national background check system that licensed gun sellers now must use. "Because background checks are not required for sales by unlicensed gun dealers, guns end up in the hands of dangerous people," one of the committee members, Representative Henry Johnson of Georgia, said. "The failure of Congress to pass universal background check legislation has eroded our sense of safety on the streets, in our schools, and even in our places of worship."
One March for Our Lives attendee echoed Johnson's remarks. "If this passes, I will feel a lot safer," said May Conning, a 17-year-old senior at Walter Johnson High School in Rockville, Maryland. She added that she expects to go to college next year and wants to feel that the younger friends she'll leave behind in high school will be safe also.
Republican members of the committee, meanwhile, argued that H.R. 8 wouldn't prevent shootings and would be unfairly burdensome for legal gun owners. One Republican-invited witness, called on to testify at the hearing, was a woman who was raped in college. She thought she could have prevented the traumatic crime if she could have had her gun with her on campus.
"I appreciate the efforts of those who want H.R. 8 and many who have signed on, but similar gun control measures would not have prevented Columbine, San Bernardino, Charleston, or other tragedies," said Representative Doug Collins of Georgia. Later, he said: "You go to the Bureau of Prisons, when they put out their statistics, most criminals—as you well know—do not get their guns from legal sources."
Bureau of Justice Statistics numbers do indeed show that, among state and federal prisoners who carried a gun during their crime, they most commonly (43 percent) reported that they got their weapons through the black market. Other top sources for their guns were someone else buying it for them (11 percent) and retail sources, including gun and pawn shops (9 percent). Most of these shops, the prisoners said, ran background checks on them.
As for whether a universal background check law would reduce gun crimes, that's harder to answer with research. The federal background check law hasn't fared well in studies, but it has such large loopholes, scientists say it's not a good indication of whether a more airtight law would work. Several studies suggest that combinations of gun-control laws, usually including a background check law, seem to work best in reducing gun crimes.
Among the gun-control advocates in the room, many did have lists of several laws they want enacted. Aalayah Eastmond, a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018 and now a high school senior, was another testifying witness. She rapidly listed at least six laws she wanted to see, including H.R. 8, bans on assault rifles, and the ability to sue gun companies for deaths.
Republican congresspeople who opposed stronger gun laws had a variety of ideas for what to do instead about gun violence in America. From Representative Tom McClintock of California: "Executing murderers works. Locking up other gun predators until they're old and feeble works. Confining the dangerously mentally ill so that they can be treated works. Responsible citizens who can return fire works."
And Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida listed examples of Americans who have been shot to death by undocumented immigrants, before saying "a wall or barrier on the Southern border may have" prevented their murders. His words led to an uproar from the audience, prompting a rebuke from the committee chair, Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-New York). During hearings, audience members aren't supposed to participate or demonstrate.
The conventional political wisdom has long been that those who support gun rights tend to care a lot more about guns in general than those who support gun control. That's supposed to explain why polls show that most Americans agree with stronger gun laws, yet such laws don't tend to get passed—because voters may want those policies, but they're low on their list of priorities. But during this hearing, at least, the passions ran the other way.
And beneath the drama, there was real pain. In our brief talk, Chamblee recalled how McNamara made coffee for her, even though he didn't drink it himself, and woke up before her to scrape the ice off her car in the mornings. "It was easy to be married to him," she said. They were married 33 years.
At one point, I had to pause a long while to take notes. "I'm sorry, I'm slow at writing," I said. "I'm sorry, I'm slow at speaking without crying," she replied.