US Dome 0112
CNN  — 

It took just two minutes to encapsulate America’s hopeless estrangement on guns.

Deep into a long, grueling hearing called by Republicans to target the Washington, DC, government, tensions provoked by the Nashville school shooting boiled over into an emotive exchange between Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and freshman Democratic Rep. Jared Moskowitz.

With most of the members’ seats emptied out, Moskowitz demanded to know why Republicans fixated on crime in the nation’s capital were not instead holding a hearing on “murder in schools” and asked why GOP lawmakers were so keen to ban books touching on gender issues when “dead kids can’t read.”

The Florida Democrat’s comments reflected the extreme frustration of those who believe the logical response to multiple shootings with assault-style weapons is to make such deadly arms less available. His remarks also underscored a sense among Democrats that the GOP is deeply hypocritical as it conjures visions of a nation awash in violent crime but refuses to lay any blame on the easy access to guns that have killed so many innocent victims.

Greene, a Republican from northwest Georgia, spelled out a common conservative position that the key to stopping school massacres is not banning assault rifles but actually having more guns. She called for Secret Service-style security for school kids while stirring cultural politics that excite the GOP base.

“If you want to have a good talk about schools and protecting children, we need to talk about protecting our children the same way we protect our president,” Greene said.

The arguments by Greene – who’s possibly the most visible symbol in the House of the GOP’s march to the extreme right and a loyalist to ex-President Donald Trump – showed how deeply gun access is a driving force in the party in a way that makes it impossible to envisage any future where fast-firing firearms are not easy to buy.

This short congressional back-and-forth captured the utter lack of a common frame of reference and political philosophy on guns – a divide that splits the nation, thwarts many efforts to tackle such tragedies and means that the next mass shooting is usually just hours away.

The exchange was made even more poignant by the fact that Moskowitz’s high school alma mater is Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were gunned down in 2018. The tragedy spurred him to help pass anti-gun violence legislation as a state representative. Greene has a more unsavory connection to Parkland. Video taken before she was elected to Congress showed her confronting David Hogg, a survivor of the massacre, on Capitol Hill as he lobbied for firearms reform. “He’s a coward,” Greene was heard saying in the March 2019 video as Hogg walks away without addressing her.

Rep. Jared Moskowitz listens during a House Oversight and Accountability Committee hearing on Wednesday, March 29, 2023.

A clash on the House floor

The exchange between Greene and Moskowitz was not the only moment on Wednesday when emotion and frustration over the killing of three nine-year-olds and three staff in Nashville on Monday spilled over in the House.

Reps. Jamaal Bowman, a New York Democrat, and Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican, also clashed over the shooting. Alluding to the Republican majority, Bowman shouted toward reporters,”They have control of the House. The American people need to know that they don’t have the courage to do anything to save the lives of children.”

This prompted Massie to approach Bowman on the House floor, where the two argued over the idea of armed guards in schools. “More guns lead to more deaths,” Bowman said. “Look at the data.” After Massie told Bowman to “calm down,” the New York Democrat replied, “Calm down? Children are dying!”

As he walked away and started talking to reporters, Massie – who once tweeted a photo of him and his family holding guns and asking Santa for ammo days after a mass shooting – said, “We’ve got guns here to protect us, and he doesn’t believe that kids should have somebody to protect them.”

The episode, just like the one between Greene and Moskowitz, not only showed how the Nashville shooting has further frayed already brittle relations on Capitol Hill. It illustrated two irreconcilable positions on guns and their meaning in American life that ensure the cycle of killing will go on.

While Congress did pass the first major gun safety bill in decades last year, the aftermath of the shooting in Nashville has shown how impossible even minor overhauls are now that Republicans control the House. And the reality of a divided nation and a political system that grants small, conservative and rural states equal representation to more liberal, populous states in the Senate, where a 60-vote supermajority is needed for major legislation, also means sweeping gun safety legislation is all but impossible despite Democratic control of the chamber.

Greene hits GOP campaign themes

Greene, a controversial lawmaker who’s pushed wild conspiracy theories in the past, does not represent the views of all Republicans on guns or other issues.

But she has now become an increasingly important ally of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. And her closeness with the California Republican and Trump hardly makes her an outlier in the GOP.

After Moskowitz offered, in an increasingly agitated tone, to yield to anyone in the Oversight panel hearing who “disagrees that murder in schools is not murder,” Greene stepped in.

She accused President Joe Biden of helping to precipitate an incident at her school when she was an 11th grader. In 1990, Congress passed the Gun Free School Zones Act, which made it an offense for anyone to knowingly possess a firearm in a school zone. The measure was passed as part of a wider crime bill sponsored by Biden when he was a Delaware senator.

“There was no good guy with a gun to protect us kids at school. You want to know why the shooter is dead in Nashville?” she asked, going on to say that “the good guy with a gun” killed the shooter.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, questions witnesses during the House Oversight and Accountability Committee's hearing on Wednesday, March 29, 2023.

The notion that good guys with guns protect against bad guys with guns is part of the National Rifle Association’s messaging, which has long resonated with conservatives. Greene was also referring to a swift response from armed police units in Nashville that may have saved many more lives in the school. But even the heroism of the officers could not prevent the deaths of six people. Since the Covenant School is a private school operated by a church, there was no school resource officer assigned by the city to guard it, police spokesperson Don Aaron said.

Greene’s call for presidential-style security at schools is not only impractical, given the massive Secret Service footprint that follows a commander in chief everywhere and costs many millions of dollars. Many parents do not want their kids to go to a school that resembles an armed camp or to live in a militarized society. Many gun reform advocates – including Biden, who reiterated his call for an assault weapons ban this week – say they support the Second Amendment guarantee of the right to bear arms. But they argue that no one needs such deadly weapons.

Greene also speculated about the gender identity of the shooter – which appeared to be an attempt to play into conservative cultural rhetoric at a time when some Republican presidential hopefuls are claiming that liberals are pushing a “woke” ideology. While shooter Audrey Hale’s gender identity is unclear, police told CNN that Hale – a former student at the school – was assigned female at birth and that Hale used “male pronouns” on social media.

After allowing Greene to talk, Moskowitz reclaimed his time in the hearing, and accused Republicans of being complicit in the deaths in Nashville because the assault weapons ban lapsed. He also turned to the horrific impact of AR-15-style weapons on the human body.

“You know why you don’t hunt with an AR-15 with a deer? Because there’s nothing left. And there’s nothing left of these kids when people go into school and murder them while they’re trying to read,” he said, making points that are increasingly becoming part of Democratic Party messaging on gun reform.

The hearing then moved on. But the clash was a study in miniature of how sharply America is split over guns – and how deeply it is divided politically against itself.