By Lindsay Tausch
On Wednesday, February 14, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz gunned down 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Cruz used an assault rifle that authorities believe he purchased legally, despite having a “significant” history of mental illness. Republicans and Democrats alike have voiced their horror at yet another mass shooting this year, yet both parties expressed different opinions about the role that the Parkland shooting and similar tragedies should play in the national gun control debate. Republican lawmakers, including President Trump, Senator Paul Ryan, and Senator Ted Cruz, have centered the conversation on mental illness and warned against premature attempts to limit Second Amendment rights. Democrats have called for Congressional action, though many Democratic senators have avoided naming specific measures, perhaps due to the small chance that Congress will pass new gun control legislation in the near future. Given the partisan divide on gun control in general, and in particular the connection between gun control and mass shootings, it seems unlikely that the Parkland shooting will generate enough support for significant new legislation to pass.
Republican lawmakers have expressed their grief at the tragedy and focused on the role of mental illness in mass shootings in their public responses to the Parkland shooting. In a speech on Wednesday, shortly after the shooting, President Trump commented, “We are committed to working with state and local leaders to help secure our schools and tackle the difficult issue of mental health.” In a tweet earlier the same day, Trump wrote, “So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed,” and urged Americans to report instances of mental illness to authorities. Trump’s response to the Parkland shooting lacked reference to gun control, which is noteworthy given President Obama’s strong focus on gun control after similar shootings during his presidency.
The belief that mental illness is the main precipitant of mass shootings is common among Americans. In fact, a large portion of Americans believe that the effective identification of mental illness prior to purchasing a weapon would significantly decrease the potential for future shootings. Echoing Trump’s reaction, Senator Ted Cruz discussed mental illness on Wednesday during his appearance on Fox & Friends. Cruz urged Democrats to redirect their focus from gun control to mental illness. He posed the questions, “Were there signs of mental illness? Could we have stepped in beforehand?” in relation to mass shootings. Similarly, Senator Paul Ryan warned policy makers against taking a “knee-jerk” reaction to the events at Parkland and altering current legislation. While Ryan voiced his support for recent efforts in Congress to improve background checks, he made clear his view that “taking away a law-abiding citizen’s rights” is an improper response to the Parkland shooting. Simply stated, regardless of circumstance, Republicans are steadfast in maintaining the Second Amendment. It is likely that current legislation regarding the Second Amendment will remain intact for the time being. Congress has not passed a gun control bill since 2007, as Republicans have maintained a united front against further legislation.
Unlike the Republicans, Democrats have centered the post-Parkland conversation on gun control and the need for legislation to limit access to guns. Forty-four of the forty-nine Democratic senators who have publicly responded to the Parkland shooting have called for lawmakers to act to prevent future tragedies. Some, such as Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, have called for specific actions. Feinstein, who introduced the Automatic Gunfire Prevention Act in October and the Assault Weapons Ban in November of 2017, introduced a new bill in response to the Parkland shooting. This bill would raise the minimum age required to purchase an assault rifle from eighteen–the current age required to purchase a handgun–to twenty-one. Seventeen Democratic senators have echoed Feinstein’s urgency in their public responses, naming specific gun control measures such as increased background checks, a “no fly, no buy” rule, and a ban on bump stocks (attachments that allow semiautomatic rifles to fire faster). While some Democrats are offering specific ways to decrease access to weapons and tighten gun control, the majority of Democratic senators have called for general action rather than citing specific policies. The reservation to emphasize specific legislation is understandable given the slim chance that such policy would pass in the Republican controlled Congress.
Lindsay is a freshman in the College studying economics.