Democrats are scrambling for answers in the wake of the shooting massacre in Buffalo, N.Y., the latest in a string of racist mass killings that have stunned the country, terrified minority communities — and frustrated reform-minded lawmakers who are left scouring for a viable response.
The deadly tragedy in Buffalo, where a lone gunman shot 13 people in a grocery store, 11 of them Black, killing 10, follows on the heels of similar bigoted attacks in Texas and Pittsburgh, where racist gunmen singled out specific ethnic minorities they deemed a threat to White culture and power.
And it’s put Democrats in a familiar position: Full of ideas for combating racist violence but lacking the political heft to see most of them through.
While House Democratic leaders this week successfully rushed to pass legislation giving the federal government new tools to combat domestic terrorism, the bill appears to lack the needed Republican support to move through the Senate.
Similarly, House Democrats passed legislation last year expanding mandatory background checks prior to gun sales, but the idea has hit a brick wall in the 50-50 upper chamber, where Republicans are overwhelmingly opposed to any new restrictions on firearms.
And in a midterm election year, when Democrats are fighting to protect threatened incumbents in tough battleground districts, there’s been little appetite to consider stricter firearm controls, such as a ban on military-style semi-automatic rifles, for fear it would haunt those vulnerable lawmakers at the polls in November.
Indeed, unlike the most prominent mass shootings of years past, when Democrats hurried to promote a host of gun reform proposals, the Buffalo massacre has prompted no plan from party leaders to bring more gun legislation to the floor — a strategy that some liberal lawmakers say is a mistake.
“One issue in the House that we should hopefully revisit is [Rep. David] Cicilline’s [D-R.I.] assault weapons ban legislation, which has not yet received a vote,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.).
“I wish it would.”
The situation highlights the limitations of Democrats’ policy powers, despite their control over the White House and both chambers of Congress. And in the absence of a legislative pathway, Democrats are searching for other avenues to address the scourges of epidemic gun violence, rising white nationalism, and the sometimes deadly confluence of the two.
The suspect in the Buffalo shooting appears to be the latest example, having posted an online screed just before the incident promoting white “replacement theory,” the baseless notion that leftist elites want to grow the numbers of immigrants and other minorities in the United States to dilute the influence of white voters.
Raising public awareness of that threat, some Democrats say, should be the party’s highest priority in the wake of the tragedy.
“We have to speak out, first of all, and talk about the toxic combination of gun violence, white supremacy, and domestic terrorism,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a former head of the Congressional Black Caucus. “It’s up to Democrats to educate the public about what’s taking place in this country. Because if we don’t, then people don’t really see the connection. And it’s Buffalo today, who knows where tomorrow.”
President Biden offered a boost to the public messaging effort on Thursday, when he visited the site of the Buffalo shooting — a Tops grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood — and delivered a speech denouncing the “poison” of white supremacy.
“We need to say as clearly and forcefully as we can that the ideology of white supremacy has no place in America,” Biden said. “None.”
But some Democrats are hoping he will go further, calling on the administration to take unilateral steps aimed at combating gun violence in the absence of congressional action.
Swalwell said a good place to start would be a ban, imposed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, on devices called auto sears, which convert semi-automatic firearms into automatic weapons.
“I think by executive order they can fix that,” he said.
Joining Democrats, GOP leaders have condemned the Buffalo massacre — and white supremacy — in no uncertain terms. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) characterized the suspect as “the very worst of humanity.”
But Republicans have declined to denounce replacement theory. In fact, some GOP lawmakers have promoted similar ideas, warning that Democrats have hopes to solidify political power by flooding the country with like-minded minorities — a strategy that would simultaneously disenfranchise America’s white population.
“For many Americans, what seems to be happening, or what they believe right now is happening is — what appears to them is — we’re replacing national-born Americans, native-born Americans, to permanently transform the landscape of this very nation,” Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) said in a committee hearing last year.
Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), the third-ranking House Republican, has aired a similar warning, posting Facebook ads last year that accused Democrats of plotting a “PERMANENT ELECTION INSURRECTION” through proposals to grant “amnesty” to undocumented immigration.
Those comments — combined with the refusal of GOP leaders to condemn replacement theory by name — have infuriated Democrats on Capitol Hill, who say Republicans want all the political advantages that come with stirring up white grievance without accepting any of the responsibility when someone escalates it to violence.
“Republicans should denounce replacement theory. That’s the first thing that needs to be done,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.). “Republicans need to acknowledge that this is a false and vile racist theory and they need to tell their supporters that.”
Lieu, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, noted that the panel held a hearing last year on the threat posed by violent white nationalism. One tool Congress now has for taking on the problem, he said, is to fund the law enforcement agencies charged with tackling it properly.
“The FBI director has said that white nationalist terrorism is the greatest domestic terror threat that we’re facing,” he said. “And if the various agencies need more resources, then I think they should ask us, and we’d be happy to look into it.”
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), head of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, is also planning to call attention to the issue, scheduling a June 8 hearing on gun violence.
Others haven’t lost hope in the legislative route, and the assault weapons ban is not the only proposal getting renewed attention following the Buffalo shooting.
Cicilline this week was busy promoting another bill he’s sponsored, along with GOP Rep. Fred Upton (Mich.), that is designed to defuse active-shooter incidents by creating a new post within the Justice Department to coordinate threat information to local authorities in real-time.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) is also floating several reform proposals. Citing the Buffalo suspect’s reported fixation with white supremacist chat rooms, Wasserman Schultz is advocating for Congress to strengthen checks on internet content, a highly contentious topic governed by Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.
“If you look at the shooter’s manifesto …. he was infused with hatred through his time spent on the Internet,” she said. “So, while balancing free speech rights, we have to really deal with the fact that social media is no longer the bulletin board concept that it was when it first came into being. … We have to adopt the virtual version of prohibiting you from shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.”
With the midterms fast approaching, the prospects are slim that such controversial legislation would find the bipartisan support to reach Biden’s desk. Still, some Democratic leaders are hoping to air at least some of those proposals, if only to draw a distinction between the two parties when it comes to combating gun violence.
“What we plan to highlight is inaction on the other side of the chamber, if we can’t get something done,” said Rep. Pete Aguilar (Calif.), vice-chair of the House Democratic Caucus. “That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. The stakes are too high.”