President Joe Biden stood on the step of his armored limousine and pointed his finger at demonstrators in grief-stricken Uvalde, Texas, who were beseeching him to “do something” in the wake of the horrific elementary school massacre.
“We will,” Biden replied, adding a thumbs-up, on a harrowing day in which he and first lady Jill Biden paid respects to 19 children and two teachers killed last week in a barbaric attack that revived the nation’s perennially futile debate over guns.
But Biden’s chances of doing “something” seem slim given the limited scope of executive power to reshape firearm laws and his administration’s struggles to exert its will in Washington. And despite a mood of national mourning, there is no sign of a fundamental shift in the tortured politics that lets a Republican Senate minority block meaningful action on gun legislation. As usual, after a horrific mass killing, there are optimistic noises in Congress that some incremental firearms reform is possible. But the stark lesson of recent history is that momentum fades with each day that passes after the carnage.
“I think things have gotten so bad that everybody’s getting more rational about it. At least that’s my hope and prayer,” Biden told reporters at the White House on Monday, adding his belief that the Second Amendment was not “absolute.”
But he acknowledged the limits of available steps that he can take alone.
“There’s the Constitution. I can’t dictate this stuff. I can do the things I’ve done, and any executive action I can take I’ll continue to take. But I can’t outlaw a weapon, I can’t change the background checks. I can’t do that,” he said.
Presidents travel to the sites of tragedies to express the solidarity and empathy of a shocked country, to try to offer a modicum of comfort to the relatives of those lost and to galvanize collective grief into a moment of national unity and action.
Biden, whose life has been scarred by family tragedy and the loss of two of his children, was uniquely equipped for the first two requirements of his mission. But given the stuck reality of national politics and the GOP’s fervent opposition to any changes to gun laws, the idea that Uvalde is the moment when a critical mass of public anger overcomes political inertia seems far-fetched.
In a sign of how depressingly common these shootings have become, Texas state Sen. Roland Gutierrez told CNN affiliate KSAT that Biden told him “we’re going to look to raze that school, build a new one,” because there is a federal grant process for schools that have been the sites of mass shootings to be torn down.
“What kind of world are we living in, that legislation was created for razing these schools?” Gutierrez asked during the interview.
Justice Department to probe law enforcement response
Still, in the most concrete sign of a federal government response to the Uvalde massacre last Tuesday, the Justice Department said it would review the law enforcement response during the killings at Robb Elementary School. CNN has reported that 19 law enforcement officers stood outside the classroom where the children died for 50 minutes waiting for room keys and tactical equipment. The revelations raised the agonizing possibilities that these departures from active shooter protocols could have cost lives.
On the legislative front, Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that he sensed a “different feeling” among GOP colleagues given the horror of the atrocity against young children in Texas. But he cautioned any eventual agreement will be limited.
And on the same show, Republican Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas underscored the limited opening for compromise in the GOP position. He rejected proposals such as universal background checks for gun purchases, red flag laws to keep guns away from people seen as a threat and prohibitions on people under the age of 21 buying powerful semi-automatic rifles. Like many Republicans, he called for enforcing school security. The level of weaponry, training and security needed would cost many millions of dollars in an often underfunded public education system and require kids to spend their formative years effectively under heavy guard. Crenshaw’s arguments were symptomatic of the position that any gun control measures would be effectively un-American – an outlook that weighs heavily against any effective action in Congress.
The cost of this absolutist philosophical stance, which leads to the widespread availability of deadly weapons and regular mass killings, was painfully revealed in a heart-rending interview conducted by CNN’s Dana Bash with Adrian Alonzo, who spent all day Tuesday trying to find his niece, Ellie Garcia, only to discover she was among those who perished.
“By far the worst day of my life. And I’ll never forget that day. I can replay those hours so vividly in my mind and it’s just etched in my mind,” Alonzo said.
Ellie would have turned 10 next Saturday.
Trump pivots from mourning to politics
While the President’s power may be limited, he did his emotional duty and more Sunday, spending three hours with bereaved families on Sunday afternoon. At one point, with the first lady by his side, he poignantly embraced Mandy Gutierrez, the principal of Robb Elementary School, next to a growing pile of flowers at an impromptu memorial.
Ex-President Donald Trump made no such journey, choosing instead to cement his standing with GOP base voters at a time when his total control over his own movement is being questioned ahead of a possible 2024 White House campaign.
Trump appeared at the National Rifle Association-Institute for Legislative Action’s annual leadership forum in Houston on Friday, less than 300 miles away from Uvalde, and read out the names of each of the children and teachers massacred.
“Each precious young soul that was taken is an incomprehensible loss,” Trump said, but quickly pivoted to politics, lashing out at Biden and other Democrats for raising the issue of gun safety overhauls after massacres in Texas and earlier this month in Buffalo, New York, both of which were conducted by 18-year-olds with legally bought semi-automatic weapons.
He argued that it was not fair for law-abiding gun owners to be deprived of such weapons because of the actions of “sick and demonic” attackers. He proposed more guns in schools to keep kids safe and for the turning of school buildings into fortresses.
And Trump spelled out the argument that even small reforms are a ruse to confiscate Americans’ guns, points often used by the NRA and other conservatives.
“Once they get the first step, they’ll take the second step, the third, the fourth, and then you’ll have a whole different look at the Second Amendment,” Trump said.
The notion that even horrific carnage like that which unfolded last week in Texas must never diminish the magnitude of the freedom of Americans to own high-powered weapons of war resonates in red, more rural states usually represented by Republicans, where Trump remains highly popular. It also helps explains why even those GOP senators who might be willing to take modest steps to keep deadly weapons out of the hands of killers find it such a tough vote and why it’s hard to meet the 60-vote threshold needed to pass major legislation – a function of Senate rules that even some moderate Democrats are not willing to entertain changing.
One Republican who is shifting his position is Rep. Adam Kinzinger. The Illinois congressman said he was now open to a ban on AR-15 rifles following a flurry of mass shootings.
“Look, I have opposed a ban, you know, fairly recently. I think I’m open to a ban now. It’s going to depend on what it looks like because there’s a lot of nuances on what constitutes, you know, certain things,” Kinzinger told CNN’s Bash on “State of the Union” when asked if he still opposed “a ban on the kind of assault weapons that were used in the shooting.”
Kinzinger, however, is hardly a representative sample of the GOP since he has freed himself from party orthodoxy by breaking with Trump – including over his election fraud lies. He has decided not to run for reelection in the fall and is therefore no longer beholden to GOP activists who would consider his comment as heresy.
But the argument that any gun restrictions would unacceptably infringe the rights of law-abiding gun owners is inherently a political one. While the Constitution says that the right to bear arms shall not be infringed, it does not state that Americans have the right to have any weapon of their choice, especially those that fire at a rate of lethality that the founders could never have imagined. And the campaign against tightening gun laws prioritizes the rights of gun owners over those of innocent victims, like those in Texas who last week had the right to life destroyed in an instant.
So entrenched are these positions that the sense of helplessness in the face of repeated massacres seems unlikely to dissipate quickly. It’s easy to imagine Biden and the first lady appearing at yet another vigil for victims of mass carnage soon. For the President, doing “something” might be impossible.
CNN’s Jennifer Henderson contributed to this report.