The Slatest

The Last Straw After the Last Straw: Talking Gun Control With Rep. Jim Himes

Relatives and friends of people who were killed by gun violence gather for a news conference with Congressional Democrats to call for action on gun violence prevention at the U.S. Capitol December 15, 2016 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Jim Himes is a Connecticut congressman who represents the district next to Sandy Hook Elementary School, site of 2012’s mass shooting of mostly young children. In June 2016, after 49 people died in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida—an attack that was known until Sunday night as the worst shooting in American history—Himes walked out of the House’s moment of silence, and took to Twitter to excoriate his colleagues with explicitly moral language:

Later that day, Himes told my colleague Ruth Graham that he would refuse to participate anymore in these post-shooting House moments of silence because “silence is perfectly emblematic of the gross negligence that’s been shown. We shouldn’t be part of it.” Asked about his reaction to Orlando, Himes told Graham:

My first reaction was what my first reaction has been just about every week since Newtown, which is just horror and a sense of—it happened last week, it happened the week before, it’ll happen next week until we finally do something.

A little more than a year later, it has indeed happened again, this time in Las Vegas, where 58 people have died and hundreds more were injured, as a lone gunman opened fire with an automatic weapon from his hotel room on a country music festival in the streets below. In a statement released this morning, Himes warned that “Once again, Congress will retreat into grief and silence.” He warned that “Until we face down the gun lobby and have the spine to take the steps necessary to protect our families, there is blood on our hands and this tragic, terrible story will play out again and again and again and again.” Because such events have become ever more lethal, and because Congress has become ever more supine, I reached out to Himes to find out what the straw after the last straw might actually look like. I reached him Monday in his office in Washington DC. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Dahlia Lithwick: Jim, like you, I want to express my horror at today’s events, my deep grief for the victims and their families, and my gratitude to the first responders. But maybe unlike you, I feel like I am flat out running out of words to express my shock at the fact that, as Matthew Cooper puts it, Congress has done close to nothing to curb the insanity of our gun laws in the five years since Sandy Hook. I honestly felt like your walkout of the House last year was the end of the line for moral fury. What comes after that?

Jim Himes: Ironically enough, I was in Westport, Conn., last night at a gun safety get-together, with about 50 people who were feeling frustrated. Their Congressional delegation isn’t the problem, but nation-wide they see no progress. They feel only impotence, and my answer to them is the same I would give to you: Some struggles just take a very long time. All of the big steps the country has taken take a long time, from the civil rights struggle to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which came after decades of efforts. It may sound cynical, but I think that this time, both the facts and public sentiment are on our side. And rather than going numb, we have to activate. I look back to after Sandy Hook, when the federal government was impotent, but in my state, and in California, and in other states, legislation has been enacted. It may seem like a tiny, tiny victory, but it matters.

The Trump Administration has already loosened gun restrictions enacted in the Obama era, ones that made it harder for buyers with a mental illness to obtain a gun. And they are reportedly contemplating opening up the market for increased gun exports. Congress is right now debating two laws that would actually loosen gun restrictions, one allowing concealed carry reciprocity across state lines, the other making it even easier to buy silencers.

There was an ironic moment, when Steve Scalise gave a superb, beautiful, speech on the floor, and he talked about, “As I lay there bleeding, I heard the reports of other weapons, from my security detail engage.” I think it’s important that as he was bleeding, he had comfort from the sound of gunshot from his security detail. And we are about to talk about silencers…. I think that the vote will be delayed again by events in Las Vegas, and fall prey to a filibuster in the Senate.

Yet I keep hearing that the gunman used an automatic weapon, that he had no history of mental health problems, that there is nothing Congress could do legislatively.

The favorite tool on the other side is to take the example du jour, to look at the facts of today’s event, and then say there is nothing we could have done. But it’s just a trick to say we can’t fix the gun problem in its entirety, so let’s not even try to move the needle. There is just no other area of public policy where that’s the prevailing rule. We’ve seen in Connecticut that when we passed the assault rifle ban, fewer people died. The objective here is not zero deaths. It is to stop warlike carnage. And that doesn’t even take into account the fact that two thirds of gun deaths are from suicides. If we do anything to stop that, it’s fewer deaths.

You have already walked out on a moment of silence, and excoriated your colleagues for inaction. What do you tell readers who are starting to feel that nothing can ever change, despite the massive popularity of so many gun control proposals we cannot seem to pass? I imagine we will hear in the coming days that none of these measures have anything to do with the terror attack in Las Vegas, and that to even suggest a connection is to “politicize” a tragedy.

I reject the idea that its ever too soon to talk about a tragedy. We don’t say that after a hurricane or a terror attack. Of course, we begin from our humanity, and the sheer horror of what has been done. But we have a responsibility to immediately respond where we can. Saying that we shouldn’t “politicize” a shooting is just another device, like saying we can’t stop all gun death. It is another trick. I am sure there will be another moment of silence in the House this time. I am also sure I will be elsewhere when it happens.