The leader of gun-violence prevention efforts in the U.S. House of Representatives was in Connecticut on Friday to help Democrats execute their new strategy: Demonstrate enough support in the lower chamber to compel the U.S. Senate to revisit the bill it rejected last month.
U.S. Rep Mike Thompson, D-Calif., was tapped to lead the House gun violence prevention task force on Dec. 15, the day after the Newtown massacre. On Friday, five months later, he and U.S. Rep. John Larson held a task force field hearing at the Hartford Public High School Law and Government Academy.
Larson and Thompson have introduced a bill to expand background checks, an identical proposal to the amendment sponsored by U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin. D-W. Va., and Patrick Toomey, R-Penn., that failed to gain passage in the Senate. The bill would require a background check on all commercial gun sales, extending the existing law to cover gun shows and online sales.
Their measure has 160 co-sponsors, and Thompson said even more members are willing to vote for it. "They just don't want to be out in front," he said.
Friday's event was part of an effort by House Democrats to draw more members of the House to support their measure. Blumenthal said those efforts are both symbolic and strategic.
"One of the big arguments in the Senate is, 'Well, we don't want to walk over a cliff politically if it's not going to pass the House,'" said Blumenthal. "What we're seeing is there's growing momentum in the House, which will enable more confidence and trust that these votes are for real."
Democrats in the House are trying to force the hand of senators who voted against the Manchin-Toomey amendment because they did not want to take a political risk on a controversial measure they viewed as unlikely to reach the president's desk.
"Every co-author that we add to our list provides more leverage to their Senate to get their amendment passed," said Thompson.
Thompson, a gun owner and Vietnam War veteran, said he called House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi the day after the shooting. He recalled her confessing to him that she had confused two gun terms – a mistake that tends to anger the opposing side.
"I know as much about guns as anybody," he told her.
"That's really the M.O. — whenever anybody uses the wrong word the other side … wraps that around your axle," Thompson said. "You can never get back to talking about the real issues before us: People need to feel safe and be safe in our communities."
Lawmakers, members of law enforcement, educators, and mental health experts were among Friday's hearing panelists who testified in front of an audience of mostly students.
Hartford Police Chief James Rovella said, "Last year we had 121 people shot … we recovered over 1,800 guns in the last four years in this city." The problems in Hartford, he said, illustrate the need for stricter federal gun laws.
"Where do our guns come from? They come from straw buyers, they come from out of state ... people [are] bringing these guns to our city," Rovella said.
Yahaira Escribano, a junior at the Law and Government Academy, asked lawmakers and hearing panelists how they proposed to address Hartford's thriving black market for guns.
Rovella responded: "It is very, very difficult. We don't know where they all come from, but they do end up on the streets."
After the event, Escribano said, "It's just ridiculous that at 16 years old, 15 years old you can go up to the streets and buy a weapon."
The same month as the Newtown massacre, she said, she witnessed a shooting from her own backyard. She said her next door neighbor was killed by gang members, who were aiming the bullet at a different target.
"All I want is for the bill to pass," she said.