WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives began moving toward tighter gun regulations on Wednesday, holding the first congressional hearing in years on how to stem the epidemic of gun violence that claimed the lives of nearly 40,000 Americans in 2017.
The Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee focused on a bipartisan bill called the Bipartisan Background Checks Act, which would require background checks for all firearm sales and most firearm transfers. It has 230 House co-sponsors, including five Republicans.
“Despite the obvious need to address the source of gun violence, Congress, for too long, has done virtually nothing. But now, we begin a new chapter,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat.
Democrats won control of the House in the November elections after eight years of Republican rule, partly because of public frustration over the inability of Congress to address a growing number of mass shootings at schools and other public venues.
Wednesday’s hearing took place a week ahead of the first anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which claimed the lives of 17 students and staff and launched a national youth movement that has reignited the long-running U.S. debate over gun rights.
But there was no sign that any gun legislation approved by the Democratic House majority would gain traction in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Witnesses at the hearing also called for legislation to address gun trafficking between states, a ban against assault rifles, the repeal of a federal law that protects the gun industry from lawsuits, and increased funding for federal officials charged with policing the flow of firearms across the country.
The U.S. Constitution protects the right of Americans to bear arms. The measure is fiercely defended by Republicans, who on Wednesday warned that new legislation could lead to a national gun registry and claimed that expanded background checks would not protect people from gun crime.
“The greatest cruelty in the world is to tell people you will help in their situation with legislation and then try to pass off legislation that would do nothing,” said Representative Doug Collins, the Judiciary Committee’s top Republican. “In legal terms, that’s called fraud.”
Witnesses said the legislation would close loopholes exploited by online gun dealers and those who purchase guns for others unwilling or unable to buy their own.
“This bill will definitely save lives,” Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo told lawmakers.
Of the close to 40,000 deaths from gun violence in 2017, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in December that 60 percent were self-inflicted.
A congressional hearing on gun violence erupted into recriminations on Wednesday after Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) argued for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and called for the removal of two fathers whose children were killed in last year’s mass shooting in Parkland, Fla.
Gaetz, one of President Trump’s most vocal supporters on Capitol Hill, prompted an outcry from the Parkland fathers when he argued at a House Judiciary Committee hearing that illegal immigration is a greater threat to public safety than gun violence.
The panel was discussing H.R. 8, a bipartisan measure introduced in the House last month that would require background checks for all gun sales and most gun transfers.
“As we hear the stories and circumstances for those here, I hope we do not forget the pain and anguish and sense of loss felt by those all over the country who have been the victims of violence at the hands of illegal aliens,” Gaetz said. “H.R. 8 would not have stopped many of the circumstances I raised, but a wall — a barrier on the southern border — may have, and that’s what we’re fighting for.”
Two Parkland fathers, Manuel Oliver and Fred Guttenberg, were seated in the audience. Oliver, who lost his son Joaquin in the shooting, stood up and protested Gaetz’s remarks; Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed, also spoke out.
Seventeen students and staff members were killed in the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), called for order and reminded audience members not to speak out during hearings. But moments later, as Gaetz resumed speaking and argued that undocumented immigrants are a greater threat than firearms, he again prompted a retort from Oliver.
After another admonition from Nadler, the room quieted down, and Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) posed a question.
“Is there any committee rule that prevents a member of Congress from reciting false statements in a committee hearing that are unsupported by the evidence, or are members of Congress entitled to just make things up in support of specious arguments?” he asked, prompting applause from some in the room.
Later, Gaetz pointed his finger at Oliver and Guttenberg, asking whether there is a committee process that calls for audience members to be ejected for repeatedly interrupting members.
The hearing was the first on gun control in years. Democrats have made the issue a priority since retaking control of the House last month. Any gun-control legislation stands little chance of proceeding in the Senate, however, where Republicans retain the majority.
Both Guttenberg and Oliver were in the House chamber on Tuesday night for Trump’s State of the Union address. Guttenberg was a guest of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), while Oliver was a guest of Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.).
Oliver, an artist, has taken on the role of an activist in the year since the shooting. He recently performed a stand-up routine in which he denounced comedian Louis C.K. for mocking the Parkland victims; he and his wife have also started a gun-control group called Change the Ref.
Guttenberg, who has founded a group called Orange Ribbons for Jaime, has also been vocal on the issue of gun violence. He voiced disappointment in an op-ed for Newsweek on Wednesday that Trump “stayed silent” on the issue during his speech last night.
“While watching this speech, sadly, I realized that had my daughter’s killer been an illegal immigrant, the president would have mentioned it,” Guttenberg said. “He failed to mention it because like so many victims of gun violence, she was killed by an American male.”