House Shifts Focus to Gun Control, Soliciting Emotional Testimony

WASHINGTON (CN) – From survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, to hospital trauma surgeons, the House Judiciary Committee heard hours of testimony Wednesday on the need to ramp up gun control.

Students are evacuated by police out of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland after a shooter opened fire on the campus. (Mike Stocker, South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

“I am here to tell you a simple truth – gun violence is such an epidemic that anyone, anywhere, at any time can be affected,” said Aalayah Eastmond, who survived the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. “Anyone, rich or poor, white or black, young or old, all Americans are at risk and this is a side of America that none of us can or should take pride in.”

Eastmond was the first witness the committee heard from this morning, recalling how she survived the Parkland massacre by hiding under a classmate’s body.

“I thought I was going to die,” Eastmond said. “As I lay there, I begged God to please make it fast.”

Legislation on guns is one of the priorities Democrats have put forward since taking the majority in the House in the 2018 midterm elections. Representative Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said Wednesday’s hearing is the beginning of the process by which lawmakers will fine-tune proposals.

The witnesses and lawmakers called Wednesday for a wide range of bills, from bans on so-called assault weapons to legislation aimed at tightening up already existing background check procedures.

“We have both the opportunity and the responsibility to comprehensively address gun violence as the true public health crisis that it is,” said Joseph Sakran, a trauma surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and a board member of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “This is not a Democrat-versus-a-Republican issue. It’s a uniquely American issue, and it’s uniquely in each of your hands to help fix it.”

One bill that received particular attention from the witnesses was the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, which has been endorsed by Robyn Thomas, the executive director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, and Houston Chief of Police Art Acevedo, both of whom testified Wednesday. 

In a Jan. 31, 2019, news conference, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo gives an update in the investigation of the officer-involved shooting that left four HPD officers shot and two suspects dead.

The bill would require anyone who buys a gun to undergo a background check, with limited exceptions, such as allowing close family members to give each other guns as gifts.

“I don’t think anyone on this panel would say that it wouldn’t prevent at least one death,” Acevedo said. “The question that I would have is if that one death was your child, your mother, your father, is a little inconvenience too much to save that life?”

Representative David Cicilline, D-R.I., called the bill the “beginning” of Congress’ work on the issue.

Republicans on the committee cautioned meanwhile against Congress passing a law that has the appearance of addressing the issue of gun violence but that does not actually solve any problems.

Representative Doug Collins, R-Ga., said the laws backed by Democrats would largely fall on legal gun owners while doing little to deter criminals.

“Today, I think the greatest cruelty in the world is to tell people you will help them in their situation with legislation and then try to pass off legislation that will do nothing to fix the problems that you claim to fix,” said Collins, the top Republican on the committee. “In legal terms, that’s called fraud.”

One witness, Old Dominion University student Savannah Lindquist, supported Collins’ position. A victim of sexual assault while a senior in college, Lindquist told the committee strict gun laws prevented her from protecting herself.

Lindquist said she dropped out of school, shut herself in her childhood bedroom and developed significant health problems after her assault.

“I obeyed the law as a responsible gun owner and it ended in me being raped,” Lindquist said.

Manuel Oliver, whose son Joaquin was killed in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, reacts to the words of Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., during the House Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence, at Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

In an interview after the hearing, Nadler said Democrats are eyeing several different pieces of gun legislation, including more bills aimed at tightening background-check loopholes and possibly a ban on assault rifles. He predicted the background-check bill discussed at the hearing would have the best chance of clearing the Senate and becoming law.  

An audience of gun-violence survivors, including young people wearing shirts supporting March for Our Lives, an advocacy movement that emerged after the Parkland shooting, packed the hearing room. The family members of several people who died in that and other shootings were present as well.

On multiple occasions the audience erupted into applause after testimony or comments from lawmakers, even as Nadler cautioned them against doing so in an effort to maintain decorum. The young people in the audience eventually resorted to snapping instead.

Representative Ted Deutch, who represents Parkland, praised the students at the school in his district and the victims of other mass shootings who have banded together in advocacy.

“They don’t owe us their service and advocacy, they don’t owe us anything,” Deutch said. “Congress failed them. We didn’t do our job.”

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