I spent most of the day bugging senators and asking them what, if anything, would be a wise legislative response to the Newtown massacre. It was a popular question; sometimes I just stood back as the senators described their positions, or non-positions, to a scrum of reporters. Sen. Roy Blunt paused after a leadership press conference to discuss whether we needed more mental health legislation.
“I think we ought to look to see what, within the limits of the Constitution, we can do to solve this problem,” he said. “I’ve thought, for some time, that the federal government doesn’t provide the kind of incentives we need for better mental health, dealing with mental health questions, sharing that information. One of the common threads, whether it’s my former colleague Gabby Giffords and her staff, or whether it’s the Aurora shooting – all of these cases, these people have severe mental problems that are known to some people in the community, even in the security structure of the community, and that doesn’t seem to be shared as it should be.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, who tops some of the (inevitably, way too early) 2016 presidential speculation listicles, was very careful. “Criminals, by definition, do not follow the law,” he said. “Connecticut has some of the strictest gun laws in the country. Let’s learn more about this incident, and all the factors leading into this terrible tragedy, and then we can have a public policy debate based on those facts.”
I asked Rubio whether a longer view of massacres, going back to Aurora this summer and Tucson two years ago, suggested any possible problems or legislation. “The question is whether there are public policy measures we could undertake that would further prevent criminals and dangerous individuals from getting weapons,” he said. “We have to be equally vigilant about the Second Amendment protections in our Constitution.” What about extended clips, the legality of which was discussed after the Tucson shooting? “We want to see whether that would have been effective in preventing this. I’d remind everyone: Connecticut has very strict gun laws, and they were not enough.”
Only one Republican who’d voted against gun control in the past left himself open to any kind of legislation: Sen. Lindsey Graham. “Every bad event in the world can’t be fixed by government,” he said. “The question for me is: How do you prevent mass murder? Isn’t that what we’re talking about/ How do you stop somebody from doing what this guy did, shooting his mother in the head and killing a bunch of kids. I guess one way is to take every sharp object out of society. I don’t think that’s very practical. Or to stop putting people in jail who just appear to be dangerous, providing more services but changing the laws that would allow preventative detention, because you might be a threat to somebody else.”
What about the gun show loophole? “Report back to me and see if that was the problem here,” said Graham. “This kid accessed weapons that were lawfully purchased by his mother, right? That doesn’t seem to be the problem here.”
Well, what about extended clips? That might be something to look at. See, what we don’t want to do is make the strategy taking someone’s political agenda and moving it forward because of tragedy.”