Sammy Caruso had attended the March For Our Lives in Washington D.C. He had organized walkouts at his school in the months after the shooting in Parkland, Florida. He had even lobbied state legislators about the need for stronger gun legislation in his home state of Ohio. In those first months of 2018, Sammy was already active in a rising movement of young people fed up with inaction on gun laws. And that was before gun violence hit close to home. On August 4, a mile and a half from Sammy’s house, a gunman opened fire outside a bar in Dayton, Ohio. He used an AR-15-style pistol to fire 41 shots in just 32 seconds, killing nine individuals and wounding many more.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Sammy remembered the trauma and frustration his community felt.
“The question that everyone’s asking is, ‘When am I next?’ And this is our city, and we were the next one…. That’s the message that I want other people to know is that it can be anyone else’s city, just like it was Dayton.”
Sammy’s words highlight the anxiety many Americans feel in response to the threat of gun violence. Despite overwhelming support for certain gun measures—over 90 percent of Americans support universal background checks, according to the Giffords Law Center—virtually no meaningful federal gun safety proposals have become law in recent years. Several bills approved by the House of Representatives remain stalled in the Republican-led Senate. Many have suggested that the influence of interest groups may be a factor in the lack of new legislation, but it is unclear if this offers a full explanation. With the vast majority of Americans supporting new gun measures, the question becomes: Why does this stagnation persist in the Senate?
Sammy’s warning about the omnipresence of gun violence seems especially prescient given the Dayton shooting’s context: It occurred just 13 hours after a gunman had killed 22 and wounded 25 at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. In the days following, community members in both cities attended protests, vigils and funerals. At a vigil less than 24 hours after the Dayton shooting, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine addressed the shaken community. As he relayed his condolences, a chant of “Do something!” slowly built throughout the crowd. More and more individuals joined, seemingly expressing sheer frustration at state and federal inaction on gun laws. Soon, the crowd’s fervent chant drowned out the governor’s words.
While government officials debated how to “do something,” community members took action. Sammy himself organized an event in which he encouraged students to walk out of school and adults to leave work at 9:37 a.m. on August 21, in honor of Dayton’s 937 area code. He then led a rally on Courthouse Square in downtown Dayton to push legislators for stronger gun safety initiatives.
“We’re just sick of BS. And that’s what people are hearing from our lawmakers. They’re talking out of the side of their mouth, and they’re not doing anything,” Sammy said in an interview with The Politic. “I think ‘do something’—that chant—is coming from a place of mere frustration. When you say ‘do something,’ it’s almost desperation, because no one is hearing the citizens of any of these cities after mass shootings happen. Not hearing the victims, not hearing how this is actually affecting people.”
In the halls of Congress, however, the new Democratic House majority wants gun safety activists to know they are listening. While the rapid national news cycle may distract from gun issues in the absence of a recent mass shooting, the House has made steady progress on gun legislation in recent months.
In an interview with The Politic, Congressman Ted Deutch (D-FL), a member of the Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, described the current state of gun bills in Congress. “While it’s infuriating that Mitch McConnell refuses to bring up the two pieces of legislation that we passed and sent over, including universal background checks, which is overwhelmingly supported by the American people, the House continues to advance a gun safety agenda,” Deutch said.
The two bills Deutch mentioned, H.R. 8 and H.R. 1112, seek to enhance the national background check system. H.R. 8 requires a background check for most firearm transfers between private parties, and H.R. 1112 requires firearms dealers to wait at least ten days—increased from a three-day waiting period—before completing a sale.
For Deutch, gun violence has become personal. While he has always supported gun safety laws, the cause took on new meaning on February 14, 2018, when 14 students and three faculty members were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in his district.
“It was the most emotional day I’ve had as a member of Congress,” Deutch said, describing how he was first notified of the shooting while in a congressional meeting room. He recalled flying home that night and attending a vigil the next day. “A girl walked up to me and grabbed my hand and said, ‘Congressman, my best friend bled out on top of me. You have to do something.’”
After the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, many hoped the Senate would “do something” on the two bills. These brutal massacres reignited the gun safety debate, prompting Democratic lawmakers to call for an early return from Congress’s August recess to address the gun violence epidemic. However, congressional leaders chose not to reconvene Congress, and the Senate did not bring any gun-related laws to the floor when they returned. In an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) justified the delay by invoking President’s executive power: Before putting a bill on the floor, McConnell first wants to “know that if we pass [the bill] it’ll become law.” Although, just after the shooting, President Trump showed a willingness to promote gun reforms and activists saw momentary hope, the president has since backtracked, arguing that Congress should instead focus on mental health. His reticence makes it unlikely that McConnell will bring gun legislation to the floor, regardless of national support.
To Sammy, this stagnation felt inevitable. “I think Dayton happened, it was a shooting and people heard about it on the news…and then we’re going to move on. And then we heard about [the shooting in] Odessa, and [soon] that’s the last we’ve heard of Odessa,” Sammy said.
Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA), a leader in the fight for bipartisan gun reform, believes that distractions in the news cycle, such as the current impeachment push, can make passage of gun bills more difficult. “I’m hoping…that we can continue to pursue policy that I’ve been advocating. But I acknowledge that a lot of clamoring for impeachment is not helpful,” Toomey said, according to Politico. “It makes it more difficult.”
Nevertheless, the House is moving forward with other proposals. “The Judiciary Committee marked up a ban on high-capacity magazines and an extreme risk protection order bill. We sent them both to the House floor, and I expect the House will vote on those and send those to the Senate as well,” Deutch said. “The Gun Violence Prevention Task Force continues to hold multiple events every month…to continue to try and let the light on the need for further action.” Deutch also stressed the importance of community engagement in the legislative process, especially about the everyday gun violence that hardly makes the news. “The Crime Subcommittee in the House held a very important hearing recently on everyday gun violence in our communities—what my colleague [Representative William] Lacy Clay refers to as ‘slow motion mass shooting’—and we intend to follow that up with field hearings in cities across the country to elevate that as well,” Deutch said.
Some Republicans have also supported legislation that they believe will reduce gun violence. Congressman Thomas Massie (R-KY) introduced H.R. 3200, the Safe Students Act, on June 11. The bill seeks to repeal any legal provisions that prohibit individuals from possessing or discharging firearms in a school zone. Since the bill was referred to a sub-committee on June 28, there has been no action on it.
Many gun rights groups, including the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, praised the bill. Their website declares that H.R. 3200 “is a common sense approach to a serious problem. It would allow teachers to carry firearms for self-defense and the defense of students in emergencies.”
Hunter Pollack remembers the utter grief that compelled him to become an activist after his sister Meadow was killed in the Parkland school shooting. “Losing my sister in a school [shooting], I couldn’t imagine another sibling losing [theirs],” Hunter said in an interview with The Politic. “Knowing that this is an epidemic…we should not be having school shootings.”
Hunter believes that school safety bills should be prioritized over gun-related bills. He said, “I don’t think that we need gun-free zones. If you want a lock-down area, put a fence up, no firearms, add a metal detector. Because criminals don’t abide by the law…. Stop making gun-free zones a walk-in for any mass shooter.”
Yet his comments come at a time when more Americans are beginning to support gun-related legislative changes. According to a Fox News poll, 67 percent of Americans now support banning assault rifles and semi-automatic weapons; the same poll showed 51 percent support in March 2013. The current bill proposing a ban on assault weapons, H.R. 1296, was introduced by Representative David Cicilline (D-RI) on February 15, 2019. According to Deutch, there was a recent hearing on the bill, “which sets the stage for action on that issue.” Nevertheless, gun safety activists stress that gun deaths occur every day that there is no official law passed. Even on the day that Cicilline introduced the assault weapons ban bill, a mass shooting occurred in Aurora, Illinois.
Simply saying “Aurora mass shooting” is no longer specific enough. For information on the mass shooting of February 15, 2019, it will take nearly two pages of Google results to find a single article. It is now necessary to distinguish between the 2012 Aurora, Colorado mass shooting and the 2019 Aurora, Illinois mass shooting.
Madison Hahamy ’23 went to school ten minutes from the Henry Pratt Company warehouse where the Aurora, Illinois mass shooting occurred. She remembers the fear gripping such a close community as a recently terminated employee of the company opened fire, killing five and wounding six more. She recalls her incredulity when realizing that two small towns, both named Aurora, had experienced a mass shooting.
The shooting in Aurora, Illinois occurred the day after the one-year anniversary of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, when the student journalism project “Since Parkland” was released. Madison was a Senior Project Reporter for the group, which consisted of about 200 student journalists. With the guidance and resources of The Trace, the Miami Herald and the Gun Violence Archive, the students aimed to tell the story of every child who died due to gun violence within the 12 months after the Parkland shooting. They wrote 100-word profiles for approximately 1,200 kids, covering the often-neglected stories of less affluent kids who were not killed in mass shootings.
In one story, Madison wrote about Tymier Shelby, a 12-year-old from Delaware who was “quiet but dutiful.” While at home one summer day, he found and accidentally fired a loaded gun and was pronounced dead later that day. In another story, Madison describes the “uncontained laughter” of three-month-old Tarique Morris. He was killed, along with his parents, when bullets shattered their car window as they drove through Youngstown, Ohio. “Since Parkland” contains hundreds of these tragic stories, emphasizing how little of gun violence’s devastation people truly see.
Madison believes that stories like Tymier’s and Tarique’s show the pervasiveness of gun violence and the necessity of congressional action. “The thing with gun violence is it kills people,” she said. “There are things you can talk about that, on a certain level, people die because of it, but gun violence is directly linked. You don’t pass this law, people will die…. There’s an urgency with gun violence.”
While participating in the gun safety movement, Madison has wondered why the Senate’s passivity seems inevitable. Although deadly shootings occur daily and mass shootings make headlines regularly, most congressional Republicans have not changed their stances. At the same time, the National Rifle Association (NRA), which many believe is the primary cause for Republican inaction, is struggling to maintain funding and public support.
“There’s such a big disconnect between what people want and what the people in power do,” Madison said. “I think it’s hard for [politicians] to change their opinions once they’ve had this psyche for so long and once they’ve said what they’ve said for so long. I think part of it is that they’ve dug their hole and they have to stay in it…. They don’t want to look like they’re weak or spineless.”
Madison believes there is only one way to influence legislation: voting. “If Mitch McConnell says no, there’s nothing anyone can do about that,” she argued. “So I think it has to be voting people out…. I think specifically for gun violence, we need national-level change.”
For Sammy, Madison, and Congressman Deutch, advocating for gun safety legislation was important even before each felt the personal impact of gun violence. With a new Democratic House majority and a public clearly in favor of many gun safety measures, they believe their experiences demonstrate the potential and need for action.
With a weakened NRA, Sammy believes that political rifts have caused the current stagnation. “Part of it is gonna be from the gun lobby. A big part of it, too, is that a lot of our lawmakers are partisan, and they’re not running to support the issues that most of their constituents support. They’re running to support their party and to support the power of their party,” Sammy argued. “We have split those lines, that Republicans are against gun control, and that Democrats are for gun control, and that’s that…. Shooters don’t care about your party, and lawmakers do, and we need to change that.”
Hunter also believes that hyper-partisanship is a significant factor in the lack of new legislation at the federal level. “I just think we live in a tough time, a very partisan time because no one wants to work together in D.C. You have these Democrats in Congress just pushing for impeachment and the president pushing back at them and Republicans pushing back at them…. That’s what our government is focused on right now.”
For years, this partisan division around gun safety intensified whenever there was another mass shooting in the news. From the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 to the Las Vegas concert shooting in 2017, the general public and many government officials demanded change only when shootings caught the public’s eye. This limited response, combated with rebukes from the gun lobby, led to politicians ignoring the massacres and the “slow motion mass shootings” occurring regularly. Even in the aftermath of large-scale activism following the Parkland shooting and continued frustration after the massacres in El Paso and Dayton, some have suggested that impeachment and other 2020 election issues will distract from reform.
But Deutch believes that gun safety has become a crucial voting issue—and if senators don’t change their view, the public will vote them out. “I don’t think that [Republican senators] appreciate how dramatically different things are now and how significant of a stake they’re making in ignoring the demands of their constituents to take meaningful action,” Deutch said. “They’re choosing, regardless of the power that gun makers [and] lobbyists have, their decision to continue to side with them, in many instances, is going to cost them at the polls…. Aside from this being an immoral decision to refuse to act to keep their community safe, they’re making a bad political judgment. And it’s going to cost them.”